Why the Lottery Is a Major Source of Government Revenue


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn for a prize. Prizes may be cash or goods. The lottery is a popular pastime for many people and has become a major source of revenue for governments. The practice of drawing numbers for a prize has been around since ancient times. It was used in the Roman Empire – Nero was a fan – and it is mentioned in the Bible for selecting kings and divining God’s will.

New Hampshire started the first state lottery in 1964. Thirteen more states followed in a few years, all in the Northeast and the Rust Belt. By the late nineteen-seventies, when America was suffering from a tax revolt, lottery sales were booming. Lottery advocates no longer argued that the money raised by the games would float most of a state’s budget; they now claimed that it would pay for a single line item, often education or public parks or aid to veterans. This narrower strategy made it easier to sell a lottery and harder for opponents to argue that it would fund everything from prisons to abortions.

A second reason the lottery was popular in the northeast and in other parts of the country was that it avoided the burden of raising taxes. During the great fiscal crisis of the early nineteen-fifties, the federal government had cut spending by thirty per cent and many states were running out of revenue. States were especially averse to increasing taxes because of the political turmoil at the time and their historic aversion to inflationary taxation. A tax revolt was brewing, but the lottery provided an alternative way to finance government expenditures without a big increase in taxes.

Lottery proponents also pointed out that the prizes offered by state lotteries were not as extravagant as those in the big national games and that the chance of winning was much lower. This argument, however, was not particularly persuasive to critics. People who play the lottery do not believe that they are stupid; they know that it is extremely unlikely that they will win. If the entertainment value of a ticket outweighs the disutility of a monetary loss, playing the lottery represents a rational decision for that person.

Lastly, some argue that lottery revenues are volatile. They increase rapidly when unemployment or poverty rates rise, and they decrease when the economy recovers. But these fluctuations are not unique to the lottery; they are characteristic of all commercial products, including cigarettes and video games. Moreover, as with all commercial products, lottery product sales are heavily concentrated in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor and black or Latino.

The story The Lottery is a critique of society. Shirley Jackson shows that people can blindly follow outdated traditions and practices if they are not challenged. She argues that it is important for society to be able to stand up and say no to the status quo. In addition, the story reflects on gender roles and class differences in this society.