What is the Lottery?

The lottery is a form of gambling run by the state. People buy tickets, and in some states a computer chooses winning numbers. The prize money is usually very large, and the odds are extremely high, around one in ten or so.

Lottery proponents like to argue that the game is a way for states to increase their spending without raising taxes on ordinary people. They see it as a form of “painless revenue,” and a good way to make government more efficient. But that’s not true. The truth is that lottery revenues typically expand dramatically after they’re introduced, then level off and even decline. Lottery commissions are constantly introducing new games to try to sustain and grow them.

One story starts with a middle-aged housewife, Tessie, who is late for The Lottery because she’s finishing up the dishes in her kitchen. There is an odd ritual of the event: Every head of family draws a slip from a box, and one of them — only one — has a black spot. If the head of household draws the black spot, everybody has to draw again.

The odds are incredibly long, but a tiny sliver of hope exists. That hope couples with the meritocratic belief that if you work hard, you’ll be rich someday. This strange ambivalence is why lottery advertising is so effective. In a time of economic turmoil, it plays on people’s anxieties by dangling the promise of instant wealth.