The Truth About the Lottery

The lottery is a state-sponsored game in which participants pay a small amount of money to be given a chance at winning a larger sum. The prize money may be cash or goods. Unlike other gambling games, the lottery does not involve a card, dice or table. Its roots reach back centuries. The Old Testament instructed Moses to draw lots for land, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away property and slaves. In modern times, lotteries are common in the United States and other countries and are often used to distribute public services such as subsidized housing units or kindergarten placements.

Lotteries are also popular with the public and generate significant income for states. For example, in the US, lotteries raised more than $25 billion in 2021 alone. After paying out prizes and covering operating costs, states keep the rest. In addition to this income, some states use lottery proceeds to pay for a wide variety of state projects and services, including road improvements and education.

In the immediate post-World War II period, lotteries were hailed as a way for state governments to expand their array of services without onerous taxes on the middle class and working classes. But this arrangement came to a sudden end in the 1960s, as inflation drove up prices and the long-standing national promise that hard work and education would guarantee a middle-class standard of living eroded.

With the loss of the old argument, lottery advocates repackaged the product. Instead of arguing that a statewide lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they began to claim that it would cover a single line item—usually education, but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. In this way, they hoped to convince voters that voting for the lottery wasn’t really a vote for gambling, but rather a vote in favor of a particular service.

But the narrower message only muddied the water. The true reason why people buy lottery tickets is that they like to gamble, and that’s not something that can be argued away with a few clever slogans.

The story starts with Tessie, a middle-aged housewife who is late for her family’s Lottery Day celebration because she has to finish cleaning up the breakfast dishes. When she arrives, she finds the head of the household has drawn a folded slip of paper marked with a black spot. The head of the household then draws another slip, and so on, until all of the spots are filled.

If the black spot is drawn, the winner will receive a large sum of money. It’s the kind of money that a person could put toward an emergency fund or debt reduction, but Tessie’s husband tells her she must spend it on “something more important.” So, in the end, she goes and buys a brand new car.