The History of the Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling that pays out big prizes to lucky winners. It is a common form of gambling in the United States, with Americans spending more than $80 billion each year on tickets. Lottery advocates argue that it is a harmless and efficient way to raise money, without imposing especially onerous taxes on the middle class and working poor. But this assertion is false and obscures the regressivity of lottery revenues, which are disproportionately collected from low-income households.

Lotteries are not just a game of chance—the odds of winning are so long that people feel like they have to play, just for the sliver of hope that they will get rich. This irrational belief is what Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” captures so well. In the story, a man named Mr. Summers and his partner, Mr. Graves, set up a lottery in a remote American village. They take in a few families and then give them all a set of lottery slips, which have a black dot on them. They tell them that their chances of winning are slim, but they don’t explain why.

The lotteries are supposed to be a painless way to pay for public works, and indeed, in early America they were often accompanied by a sense of exigency; the country was growing fast and needed new roads and schools and hospitals, but there wasn’t much room in state budgets for such expenses. Lotteries helped fill that gap, and even a skeptical Thomas Jefferson agreed that most people “would prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a large chance of losing little.” They became a rare point of agreement with the more abolitionist Alexander Hamilton, who understood that, in fact, everyone would like a low-risk alternative to taxation.

Throughout history, lottery play has been tangled up with slavery, in ways both expected and unexpected. George Washington once managed a lottery whose prize included slaves, and there was even a time when an enslaved man won the lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion. More recently, the lottery has become a common fund-raiser for charitable organizations, and this is a good thing; it’s noble to want to give back, and the people who win the lottery are usually not the kinds of investors who will squander their millions.

But as the economy changed in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, lottery advocates, no longer able to sell the idea that a statewide lottery could float most of a state’s budget, began to narrow their sales pitch. Instead of saying that a lottery would pay for everything from education to elder care to aiding veterans, they now insisted that it would cover a specific line item. This allowed them to argue that a vote for the lottery was a vote for veterans or education, and thus not a vote against those things. This strategy has been successful, and the lottery continues to be a popular and profitable alternative to taxation.