The Truth About the Lottery


A lottery is a game where people have a chance to win a big prize for a small amount of money. Many Americans play the lottery every week and contribute billions to the economy each year. Some play for fun while others believe that winning the lottery will change their life. However, the odds of winning are very low. This is why it is important for people to understand how the lottery works before they decide to play.

In the seventeenth century it was common in Europe to organize lotteries to collect money for a wide variety of public usages. Lotteries were widely popular and hailed as a painless form of taxation. The oldest operating lottery is the Staatsloterij in the Netherlands, which began operation in 1726.

It was not long before legalization advocates changed tactics, no longer arguing that a state’s lottery profits would float the entire budget but a specific line item—usually education or elder care or public parks and aid for veterans. This strategy made it easy to campaign for, because voters could simply say that a vote for the lottery was a vote for those services.

As the nation’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt intensified, lottery advocates realized that they needed to make a more granular argument about how lottery funds would benefit a particular government service. They began to point out that, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, “the difference between one-in-three million and one-in-three hundred million chances does not matter.” What matters is the size of the jackpot.”

The problem with this strategy was that it shifted the debate away from whether or not the lottery was the right way to raise revenue and toward the specifics of how it would be used. This was a mistake.

By focusing on specific spending items, legalization advocates were able to convince the public that a lottery was in fact a less burdensome form of taxation. This, combined with the fact that lotteries were wildly popular in states with relatively large social safety nets, made them an attractive revenue source.

But this success has also obscured a larger truth about the lottery. It is a form of gambling that appeals to poor people because it offers them the hope of instant riches, and rich people spend on average a fraction of their incomes on tickets. The result is that, even when the jackpots are enormous, most lottery winners will still have to pay some taxes, and it is often those who have the least to begin with who end up going broke. It is a perverse consequence of a system that has given people the wrong message about wealth and luck. The story of Shirley Jackson’s short novel The Lottery exemplifies this phenomenon. In the village where she sets her novel, the villagers have a tradition of purchasing lottery tickets each year. The winner is determined by the drawing of a black dot on each ticket. But the black dot is not drawn in a random fashion; each family buys its own tickets.