The History of the Lottery


Lottery is a form of gambling that gives people a chance to win cash prizes by entering a random drawing. People can participate in lottery games either professionally or informally, and the prizes they win range from small to huge. There are many different types of lotteries, including those for kindergarten admission at a reputable school or units in a subsidized housing block. Financial lotteries are the most common, where people pay a small amount of money to be selected from a group of numbers and then win larger prizes when their number is drawn. In addition to the winnings, a percentage of the pool is normally used for costs and profits.

In the nineteenth century, a new kind of lottery emerged: state-sponsored lotteries. These allowed states to raise money for a wide range of public works, from building roads and canals to funding churches and colleges. They also helped fund the wars against the French and Indians, and the Continental Congress even ran a lottery to help finance its expedition against Canada.

The rise of the modern state-sponsored lottery coincided with a shift in public attitude about wealth and luck. By the nineteen-seventies, as Cohen writes, “the belief that hard work would yield a decent pension and secure job ceased to be true for most Americans.” The lottery, with its promise of instant riches, offered an alluring alternative.

Advocates of the lottery shifted their sales strategy, from arguing that the proceeds could float a state’s entire budget to claiming that they could cover just a single line item—usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. This narrower approach made legalization campaigns easy, because voters could be assured that their vote for the lottery was not a vote for gambling but a vote for one of the government’s more popular services.

Although the odds of winning a lottery are long, defenders argue that people don’t understand how unlikely it is to hit the jackpot and insist that they enjoy playing anyway. But, as Cohen demonstrates, that claim is false: lottery sales fluctuate with economic trends, increasing when incomes decline and unemployment rates rise, and are more heavily promoted in neighborhoods whose residents are disproportionately poor or Black or Latino.

The story opens on Lottery Day, a moment of high drama in the isolated community depicted in the short. The heads of families draw a folded slip of paper from a box. As they do so, the villagers banter. An elderly man quotes a traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn will be heavy soon.” Tessie Delacroix, the head of the Delacroix family, is a determined woman with a quick temper, and her action in picking a stone expresses this. It’s too big, so she picks it up in frustration with both hands. The story ends with a twist that reveals the truth about lottery and life. The winner will not be rich, but he or she will live.