The Truth About Lottery Tickets


A form of gambling in which a group offers tickets for a drawing to win prizes. The prize money may be a single large sum or a series of smaller amounts. Lotteries are popular in many countries, and are often regulated by law or supervised by the state. Unlike regular gambling games, which require skill to play well, lotteries have no such requirement and are considered by some to be morally harmless.

In America, people spend enormous sums buying lotto tickets. They do so even though the odds of winning are incredibly long, and even if they won, they would likely be bankrupt in a few years. And while there are people who do manage to break the cycle of staking everything they have on a single lottery ticket, they are very few.

There is, of course, an inextricable human urge to gamble. But there is also, writes Adam Cohen, something much more going on here. Lotteries offer a false promise of instant riches in an age of growing inequality and limited social mobility. People feel compelled to buy lottery tickets, not because they enjoy them but because they are desperate for the kind of luck that could change their lives forever.

Lotteries have a long history, starting in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, where towns used them to raise funds for town fortifications and for charity. The practice spread to England, and eventually reached the American colonies, where it helped finance the European settlement of the continent despite strict Protestant prohibitions against gambling.

Unlike other forms of gambling, which have been banned or heavily restricted, lottery is still legal in most states. And whereas casinos, poker, and horse racing have all gotten a bad reputation for corruption, lottery remains popular, even among religious and secular communities.

In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, a lottery boom coincided with a collapse in financial security for most working people. The gap between rich and poor widened, pensions and job security disappeared, health-care costs went up, and the longstanding national promise that education and hard work would make children better off than their parents ceased to be true. In short, life began to imitate the lottery.

The story opens with a middle-aged housewife named Tessie, who is late for Lottery Day because she’s washing the breakfast dishes in her kitchen. At the event, the heads of families draw slips from a box. One of them is marked with a black spot. If the head of the household draws this one, everybody else must draw again for a new slip. There is chatter and banter, and an elderly man quotes a traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn will be heavy soon.”