The Truth About the Lottery

The lottery is a big business and an ever-growing source of revenue for state governments. But what does that mean for the average citizen? How much are we willing to gamble, and what is the true cost of a ticket? These are just a few of the questions that Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery addresses.

The idea of drawing lots for property, slaves and even lives dates back centuries. The Old Testament instructs Moses to take a census of Israel and divide it by lot; Roman emperors, including Nero, used the lottery to give away property and slaves. It was also a popular dinner entertainment during the Saturnalia festivities—hosts would distribute pieces of wood bearing symbols to guests who would then participate in a series of drawings for prizes that they could carry home with them.

In the modern era, public lotteries first rose to prominence in the Northeast, states with generous social safety nets and budgetary crises that could not be resolved by raising taxes or cutting services. The problem was that these options were wildly unpopular with voters.

Cohen argues that when the state first began offering lotteries, it was able to sell them as something more than just another form of gambling—a societal necessity. Lotteries were supposed to provide a revenue stream that allowed states to fund their programs without enraging anti-tax voters or raising taxes on the poor. This arrangement worked remarkably well for most of the twentieth century, until state programs began to run out of funding in the early ’60s.

When state officials realized that they could no longer promote lotteries as a statewide silver bullet, they changed their messaging. They no longer argued that lottery money would float all of a state’s budget—instead they promised to use it for a single line item, usually education, but sometimes other government-supported services like elder care or public parks. This more narrow argument proved to be far more effective, because it made the case that a vote for the lottery was not a vote for gambling.

The result was that, in the past thirty years, the popularity of lotteries has grown exponentially. As we continue to play these games and spend a combined $80 billion annually on tickets, it is important that we are aware of how these products operate—what their true costs are, and what they do to our societies and individuals.