The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery


The lottery is a huge part of our culture, with Americans spending upwards of $100 billion on tickets each year. States promote the games as a painless way to raise revenue, and voters appear to buy the argument that it’s okay because people are voluntarily spending their money. But a closer look at the history of state lotteries reveals a more complex picture.

The casting of lots for making decisions and determining fates has been around since ancient times, with the first public lottery known to distribute prize money as far back as the 1500s. But the modern lottery is a much more recent invention, with its origins in the late 17th century when Benjamin Franklin ran one to help fund Philadelphia’s militia for protection against French marauders and John Hancock started one to support Boston’s Faneuil Hall. George Washington also ran a lottery to fund a road in Virginia over a mountain pass.

When the lottery is played, people pay a small sum of money to buy numbered tickets, and if they match all the numbers drawn they win the jackpot prize. Although the odds are very low, it’s easy to convince yourself that you can be the next rich person if you just keep playing. This is why so many people do it, and it’s why billboards touting the size of the latest jackpot draw so many people to stop and check out the signs.

But there is an ugly underbelly to the lottery. The fact is, even if you do win, it’s not really that great of a life-changer. First, you’re going to have a lot of tax consequences — sometimes up to half of your winnings might need to be paid in taxes. Second, you’ll find yourself back where you started from a few years later. Even if you do win big, there’s no guarantee that your wealth will last long, as many famous lottery winners have discovered.

That’s why there’s a certain irony in this story about a small town where the only thing they do to pass time is hold a lottery. The simple and observational narration allows the reader to imagine what it’s like in this village, including banter among the townspeople and an old man quoting a traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon.” It’s a quiet and unassuming story about a small-town lottery, but it also captures a larger cultural reality: that there’s something inherently deceitful about dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. As for the lottery, a close examination of its history shows that it’s not as harmless as politicians and pundits make it out to be. The truth is, it’s a pretty big scam. People who play it should save the money they spend on tickets and put it toward emergency savings or paying off their credit card debt. That’s the real lesson of this story. The rest of us should avoid it altogether.