The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a multi-billion dollar industry that lures players with promises of instant riches. While it may be fun to play once in a while, playing regularly is a bad investment of time and money. Lottery players as a group contribute billions to government receipts that could have been saved for retirement, college tuition, or other needs. The odds of winning are very low, but many people still purchase tickets every week, believing that they can win their million dollars by taking a small risk. This irrational belief drives huge government revenues and makes it impossible for states to justify the taxes that they must impose on their citizens in order to operate the lottery.

Most state lotteries follow a similar pattern: the legislature creates a monopoly for the lottery; establishes a public agency or private corporation to run it; starts with a modest number of relatively simple games and gradually expands its operations in response to pressure from state legislators, voters, and the media to increase revenue. This expansion is largely driven by the fact that most people can’t stand to see their chances of winning shrinking, so advertising campaigns are geared toward increasing interest and participation by promoting new games that promise even bigger prizes with ever-increasing odds.

A typical lottery consists of some means of recording the identities of all bettors, the amounts they stake, and the numbers or symbols on which their money is placed. The organizers then shuffle the bets and draw winners from a pool of participants. Some modern lotteries allow bettor to mark a box on the playslip indicating that they do not want to select their own numbers, in which case a computer is responsible for selecting them.

Although the casting of lots to decide matters has a long record in human history, lotteries involving prize money for material gain have a much shorter history, especially in the United States. They began in the immediate post-World War II period, when state governments were expanding their array of services without imposing especially onerous taxes on the working and middle classes. The principal argument in favor of lotteries at that time was that they would provide a painless source of taxpayer-paid funds for state programs.

In Shirley Jackson’s story, The Lottery, the villagers understand their actual odds of winning and continue to purchase tickets because they believe that they are doing the right thing for their community. They do not realize that they are merely contributing to the cycle of poverty and deprivation in their town, nor do they care that there is no actual value or benefit to be gained from their lottery wagering. The story’s events are meant to demonstrate the power of tradition and how it can trump reason and logic. It also shows how the human ego can lie to itself and convince others that what they are doing is right.