The History of the Lottery


In this classic short story by Shirley Jackson, Tessie, a middle-aged housewife, is late for the Lottery. On that day, members of a village gather together and each draws a slip from a box; one is marked with a black spot. The heads of households will then draw again, for a new slip; if the head’s family is lucky enough to find the black mark, they will win the prize.

Lotteries are an ancient pastime (Nero was a fan) and a feature of almost all cultures. They have also been a way to raise funds for everything from the construction of town fortifications to charity and public works projects. They have even been used to settle disputes, to select kings and queens and, in the Bible, for divining God’s will.

The modern lottery began, Cohen argues, when voters’ growing awareness of all the money that could be made in gambling mingled with state budget crises. In the nineteen-sixties, as populations grew and inflation accelerated, it became increasingly difficult for state governments to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services that citizens valued, like education or health care.

As a result, advocates for legalizing the lottery shifted their argument. Rather than arguing that a lottery would float the entirety of a state’s budget, they argued that it would fund one line item that was popular and nonpartisan–for example, education, or elder care or public parks. This approach made it easy for legislators to push the lottery through a state’s legislature. It also made it harder for opponents to argue that a vote for the lottery was a vote in favor of gambling.