Why Does the Lottery Work?

Lottery is one of the most popular ways state governments raise money for schools and other public-service projects. It’s also a form of gambling where players bet a small amount of money for a chance to win a large sum of money. It’s been around for thousands of years and has a long history of use in Europe.

In the United States, state lotteries were introduced after World War II and have since become a major source of state revenue. In the immediate post-war period, this seemed like a great way for states to expand their social safety nets without imposing especially onerous taxes on middle-class and working families. It’s important to understand why lotteries work, so we can better assess whether they are good for the country and how they should be run.

The short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson depicts a bucolic small-town setting where the villagers gather in their town square for their yearly lottery drawing. The children, recently on summer break, are the first to assemble, playing games and engaging in the stereotypical normalcy of small-town life. Soon adult men and women begin to gather as well. They engage in the stereotypical normalcy of small-town socializing, warmly gossiping and discussing their lives.

A few of the villagers start to form into distinct nuclear families. Then the master of ceremonies, a man named Mr. Summers, enters the square carrying a black box that he says has been handed down from an older box of “lottery paraphernalia.” He places the box on a stool in the center of the square. The villagers look at the old box with a sense of reverence.

After Mr. Summers has announced that the lottery is about to commence, he asks the gathered villagers to raise their hands when they think they might be winners. A general sigh goes up when little Dave’s hand rises, but his slip is blank. Nancy’s and Bill’s slips are blank as well. Finally, the mute Tessie Hutchinson reveals hers, which is marked with a black spot.

It’s important to remember that the prize money for a lottery is not actually sitting in some vault somewhere, waiting to be handed over to the winner. The prize money is typically based on an annuity: you receive a lump sum when you win, and then 29 annual payments that increase by 5% each year. If you die before all the annual payments have been made, your estate would get the remainder.

While many people who play the lottery claim to do so purely for fun, it’s hard to imagine a large segment of the population that doesn’t take their chances seriously. They go into it clear-eyed about the odds, and they have quotes-unquote systems that are totally irrational but make sense to them. They have ideas about lucky numbers and times of day and types of tickets to buy, and they spend a huge share of their incomes on their tickets.