The History of the Lottery

The financial lottery is a form of gambling where multiple people pay for tickets and a single winner gets selected through a random drawing. This lottery game usually involves a large cash prize, but it can also involve goods or services. It’s not uncommon for state and federal governments to run lotteries.

The ancients were fond of using lotteries to distribute property and slaves. In fact, the Old Testament has several references to dividing land amongst the tribes by lot and emperors used to give away property or slaves during Saturnalian feasts and other entertainments. The practice grew popular during the Renaissance and spread to the Americas by way of European colonists, who often financed their settlement of America with lotteries and then brought the custom back home.

By the nineteen sixties, however, when inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War eroded America’s economic prosperity, state government budgets were straining. As the author of this essay explains, many states—particularly those with generous social safety nets—found it difficult to balance their budgets without either hiking taxes or cutting services. Lotteries looked like a budgetary miracle, offering the chance for politicians to make money appear seemingly out of thin air without making hard choices that would hurt their constituents.

In the earliest days of state-run lotteries, Cohen writes, advocates often boasted that a lottery could float an entire state’s budget. But as the lottery’s popularity grew, the benefits were emphasized more narrowly: Lottery proponents began arguing that it could subsidize a specific line item, invariably a popular service such as education or veterans’ affairs. By narrowing the focus, proponents hoped to convince voters that a vote for a lottery was not just a vote for gambling but for a particular part of the government they believed in.

Today, rich people still buy a higher percentage of the lottery tickets than do the poor, and the amount they spend is considerably more than those who don’t play at all. It’s not unusual for a lottery player to win a jackpot of ten million dollars or more, but for the average American, winning a big prize is unlikely.

Nonetheless, lottery plays continue to be an important aspect of American life. They are an ever-present reminder that, for better or worse, most of our lives are just a series of chances, and fortune often favors those who are ready to take the risks. The following excerpt from Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” illustrates the point. In this story, which takes place in a small village, the men of the community gather for an annual ritual. One of the villagers, Mr. Summers, is selected to be the town lotto picker. He and his wife, Mr. Graves, have a box of slips of paper—one for each family in the village—and they carefully arrange them so that no family can be accused of being “wrong.” Each year someone new is chosen to persecute another member of the community, and he or she is guilty of nothing but having drawn the wrong number on the lottery ticket.