The Truth About the Lottery

The Truth About the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling where people choose numbers that are drawn at random to win a prize. The draw takes place at public events such as a sports game or concert, but it can also take place online. The winning numbers are then announced and the prizes are awarded to those who have chosen them correctly. There are a number of different types of lotteries, including scratch-off tickets, video games and Keno. Some states operate a state-wide lottery while others have local lotteries run by their counties, cities or towns. In the United States, there are currently 37 states and the District of Columbia that have state-run lotteries.

The drawing of lots has a long history in human society. It was common in the Roman Empire, Neros was a big fan, and it is mentioned several times in the Bible. However, the use of lotteries for material gain is a recent development. The first recorded public lotteries to sell tickets with prize money were held in the fifteenth century in the Low Countries and were used to build town fortifications or help the poor.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lotteries were widely popular in America as a way to raise money for public projects such as paving streets, building wharves and churches. They were even used to fund the Virginia Company and the Continental Congress. The popularity of lotteries rose in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, as real wages stagnated, the wealth gap widened, and job security eroded. The American dream of climbing the economic ladder and living better than your parents became an unfulfilled promise.

This is the context in which Jackson’s story takes place. In a time of growing inequality and limited social mobility, the lottery offers the false promise of instant riches to anyone who can afford the ticket. It is easy to see why it appeals to so many people.

In addition to luring in those who have little disposable income, the state lotteries rely on a strategy of psychological manipulation. The marketing campaigns, the look of the tickets and the math behind the games are designed to keep players hooked. This is not much different from the strategies employed by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers.

The public has bought into the glitzy advertising and the lure of instant wealth, but there are serious problems with this approach. Most important, it obscures the regressivity of state-run lotteries. While New Hampshire launched the modern era of state-run lotteries in 1964, all state lotteries are designed to generate regressive revenues and benefit specific constituencies such as convenience store owners (who sell lottery tickets); ticket suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are reported); teachers (in states where lottery profits are earmarked for education) and, of course, the lottery’s own staff and board. Lottery is, in effect, a form of government-sanctioned addiction.