The History of the Lottery


Lottery is a game wherein a series of numbers are drawn to determine a prize. While lottery games vary, most follow a similar format: participants purchase tickets and then mark the numbers they want to bet on in a grid on an official ticket called a playslip. The ticket is then placed in a machine that draws the numbers at random. The odds of winning are slim. In fact, there is a higher likelihood of being struck by lightning or becoming a billionaire than winning the lottery. Nevertheless, many Americans continue to spend $80 billion on tickets each year, which is a huge sum of money that could be better spent on a emergency savings account or paying off credit card debt.

The word “lottery” may come from the Latin ltare, meaning “fall of stars,” but the oldest known organized lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise money for building town fortifications and to help the poor. In the same period, casting lots was also used to settle disputes and choose rulers. In fact, lottery-like events date back to ancient Egypt and Babylon; Nero was a big fan of them, and the casting of lots is mentioned in the Bible several times.

In America, Cohen argues that the modern incarnation of the lottery emerged in the nineteen-sixties when growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with an acute crisis in state funding. In that era, states with large social safety nets found it increasingly difficult to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. Both options were deeply unpopular with voters.

As a result, states began to experiment with new ways of raising funds. In some cases, they started by reducing the size of prizes and increasing the odds of winning. In other cases, they tried to increase demand by promoting the idea that winning the lottery was a way to support a popular government service, like education or aid for veterans.

In the end, it was a combination of these forces that caused Americans to start relying heavily on the lottery to fund everything from civil defense to public works projects. It was a phenomenon that spread rapidly from England, where the lottery was legalized in 1745, to the American colonies, even though Protestant culture had strong proscriptions against gambling and other forms of luck-based gaming.

The short story reveals the way in which human greed and iniquity will always be present, no matter how much people try to deny it. This can be seen in the way that the family of Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves treats one another, as well as the way that the lottery process plays out in general. It is important to remember that this type of behavior will never be eliminated and that it is necessary to take steps in order to change it for the better. Until then, we can only hope that more individuals will begin to live with a little less greed and a little more compassion.