The Popularity of the Lottery


The lottery is a popular form of gambling in which people purchase chances to win money or prizes by drawing numbers, symbols, or other designs. A prize may be cash or goods, but the vast majority of prizes are service-related: vacations, automobiles, and even houses. It is the most widespread of all forms of gambling in terms of its popularity, despite being relatively new. Its rapid expansion and success is due to a combination of factors, including high interest rates, the desire for instant wealth, and state financial crisis.

The Lottery

A village in the Middle Ages holds a weekly lotteries to determine the distribution of property and labor. The head of each household draws a slip of paper from a box; one is marked black. If the head of a family draws that slip, everyone in the household dies, unless they are able to convince the others that their death was undeserved.

In this story, middle-aged housewife Tessie Hutchinson is late for the Lottery because she has to finish washing breakfast dishes. Her excuse is a bit of a lie. She is a little nervous about the event because she is afraid that she might draw the black-marked slip and lose her entire family. As she draws her slip, she hears the villagers bantering about other villages that have stopped holding the Lottery. She also hears an elderly man quoting a traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon.”

The villagers are completely obsessed with the chance of winning the big jackpot, and they have no desire to change anything. The narrator points out that they don’t even understand the odds of winning, and it is clear from their behavior that they are not rational at all. This is the sort of irrational, delusional behavior that people often display when they are trying to find a way to escape their problems and live the good life.

Lottery revenues grow dramatically initially, but they soon begin to flatten and even decline. This is largely because the public quickly becomes bored with the existing games, which are generally limited to drawings for large prizes in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, with long odds on the order of 1 in 4. To maintain or increase revenues, state lotteries constantly introduce new games.

Although defenders of the lottery sometimes characterize it as a tax on stupid people, it is actually more like an advertising campaign for unlimited riches. It is no coincidence that the emergence of the modern state lotteries coincided with a period of economic stagnation in America, during which income inequality grew and social safety net benefits were cut. People’s obsession with lottery prizes reflected the fading promise that education and hard work would yield a decent standard of living. For most working Americans, that dream has not come true, and the lottery is their last hope of winning the big jackpot. In reality, the lottery is simply a substitute for a lost sense of personal and social security.