The Truth About the Lottery


A lottery is a gambling game in which numbers are drawn and prizes won. It is often organized so that a percentage of proceeds are donated to charity. Its roots are in the ancient practice of dividing property or even life itself by lot.

Americans spent more than $100 billion on lottery tickets in 2021, making it the country’s most popular form of gambling. And yet state governments continue to promote the game as a noble, tax-free way to fund things like schools and roads. But just how meaningful that revenue is in broader state budgets and whether it’s worth the trade-offs to people who lose money on tickets deserves closer scrutiny.

The word “lottery” is derived from the Dutch noun lot, which means fate or fortune. The first known European lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century, where they raised funds for town fortifications and poor relief.

In the early days of American colonization, the lottery was an important source of funding for both private and public ventures. Lotteries financed roads, canals, churches, libraries, colleges, and more. They also helped finance the Revolutionary War. In fact, the foundation of Princeton and Columbia Universities was financed by a 1744 lottery sanctioned by Massachusetts Bay Province. And during the French and Indian War, lotteries raised money for local militias, as well as for a range of public utilities including bridges and canals.

It’s true that there’s a certain romance to the idea of winning the jackpot, and a great many people do play for the big bucks. But it’s also worth remembering that the odds are very, very long – and that people who have won the jackpot have often ended up bankrupt in a matter of years.

If you don’t want to pick your own numbers, most modern lotteries let you skip the picking and simply mark a box or section on your playslip to agree to have the computer randomly choose them for you. There’s also the option to simply sign your name to an entire playslip, which is sometimes called a “full house.”

The short story Shirley Jackson wrote in 1934, The Lottery, takes place in a remote rural American village. The story is not only about the odds of winning the lottery, but about class and society as reflected by how the community conducts the lottery. The men of the village meet in the square and plan a set of lottery tickets for each family, one marked with a black dot. The tickets are then folded and put in a black box that Mr. Summers keeps in his office. When it comes time for the drawing, everyone gathers in the square to watch Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves pull a ticket.