The Story of the Lottery

The lottery is a big business. Americans spend an average of $80 billion a year on tickets. But winning is a long shot. Only about one in a hundred tickets are won. And the money you win has huge tax implications. Those who do win often go broke in a few years. Despite the odds, a lot of people love to play. They have all sorts of quotes unquote systems that they believe will help them win, even though statistically these don’t work. They buy tickets at specific stores or at particular times of day. They pick their numbers based on astrological or other events. And they often do it all in front of their kids.

But there’s a much bigger story here. The lottery, like all gambling, is a morally questionable enterprise. It promotes addiction, robs poor people of money they could be using for food or education, and is, by its nature, regressive.

It’s also at cross-purposes with the public interest. It’s true that state governments sometimes benefit from the revenue from lottery sales, especially in states with a generous social safety net. But the amount of revenue the lottery raises is relatively small compared to state budgets and it doesn’t always seem to be correlated with state fiscal health. What’s more, studies have shown that a state government’s decision to run a lottery is not necessarily driven by its need for new revenues.

In addition to the moral and ethical issues, there are also practical reasons to reconsider the lottery. Its growth has been fueled by state budget crises, as many states found themselves needing to find ways to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, which would be deeply unpopular with voters. And, as with all commercial products, lottery marketing is responsive to economic fluctuation; it increases when incomes decline and unemployment rises, and it’s marketed heavily in neighborhoods that are disproportionately black or Latino.

The story of the lottery is a complex and fascinating one, and it’s not just about the money. It’s about our propensity to want to gamble, and how that plays out in our lives and society. In the end, the lottery is a reminder of our fundamentally flawed and corrupted human nature.

In his essay “Why the Lottery Matters,” Michael Clotfelter writes that Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery offers a glimpse into the “insidiously corrupt, hypocritical and manipulative” nature of the lottery. The story’s characters congratulate each other on their victories, but the truth is that their actions are inherently dishonest and mean-spirited.

The casting of lots for money has a long history—there are references to it in the Bible, and George Washington ran a Virginia-based lottery that included the prize of enslaved human beings. But the modern lottery has a different history, and it is no less troubling. It’s a story about how the lottery is not only regressive, but that it also undermines other important values in our country.