The Lottery – Is the Lottery a Gamble?


In a small, rural town in June, families gather in a public square for an annual ritual called The Lottery. The head of each household draws a slip from a box, and one is marked with a black spot. If that family wins the jackpot, they will have to pay a substantial sum in federal taxes and other state and local charges.

Tessie, a middle-aged housewife with a young son, is late for the drawing because she is still washing dishes in the kitchen sink. As she joins the crowd, she hears a little banter among the townspeople, and rumors that other villages have stopped holding The Lottery. An elderly man, who is something like the town patriarch, clearly doesn’t approve. He quotes a traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon.”

Lottery is a game of chance that, at its core, offers a low risk-to-reward ratio. As a group, lottery players contribute billions in government receipts that could otherwise be saved for retirement or college tuition. However, a number of important factors make it hard to see the lottery as anything other than a form of gambling that exploits poorer people.

Cohen explains that the modern lottery emerged during the immediate post-World War II period, as states sought to expand their social safety nets without onerous taxation on their working class constituents. For politicians, Cohen writes, lotteries were a “budgetary miracle.” They appeared to generate revenue from thin air and allowed them to avoid raising taxes or cutting services, which are both highly unpopular with voters.