A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn for a prize. Prizes can be cash, goods, services, or free tickets to the next lottery. The odds of winning are usually very low. Some states prohibit lotteries, while others endorse them and regulate them. Regardless of whether you play or not, it is important to know the odds of winning.
In the fifteenth century, a variety of towns in the Low Countries began holding public lotteries to raise funds for town fortifications and to help poor families. A lottery ticket was like a blank piece of paper with a number on it, which could be signed or scratched off and then submitted for the drawing. The first lottery prizes were money, but as time passed the prizes grew larger and more valuable.
By the late nineteen-sixties, as Cohen describes it, the growing obsession with unimaginable wealth and the dream of winning the big jackpot coincided with a crisis in state funding. As population and inflation accelerated, the cost of government soared and balancing budgets became more difficult. At the same time, a tax revolt gained momentum. California passed Proposition 13, and other states cut property taxes, while federal funds to states dropped.
Many people saw the lottery as a way to avoid raising taxes or cutting services. It was a popular alternative to other forms of gambling, and its popularity made it difficult for opponents to derail it by arguing that it would lead to corruption or moral decline. Advocates of the lottery were able to repackage it, however. No longer claiming that a lottery would float the entire state budget, they began to argue that it could fund a specific line item, often education but also elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans. This narrower message was easier to sell to voters.
The story begins with a gathering of children, who are “assembled first, of course,” and who are “excited about the event.” Jackson uses these phrases to make the lottery seem like a harmless celebration. This is an attempt to mislead the reader into thinking that the lottery is not a form of murder.
The rich do buy a lot of tickets, but they generally buy fewer than the poor (except for when the jackpots reach tens of millions). That’s because the wealthy spend a much smaller percentage of their income on lottery tickets: only one per cent; those earning less than thirty thousand dollars a year spend thirteen per cent. The result is that lottery revenue, while it may help the states, does not do enough to offset the cost to the people who win. That’s something worth remembering when we are tempted to buy a ticket for the Powerball. This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of The New Yorker. Subscribe to the magazine here.