What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, others endorse it to the point of organizing a state or national lottery, and most regulate it in some way. It is an ancient pastime, as attested to in a biblical verse ordering Moses to divide the land among the people “by lot.” Lotteries were popular in the Roman Empire—Nero loved them—and in many of the early American colonies, where they helped fund European settlement and, later, the slave trade.

In the modern era, the lottery has become increasingly a game for rich people. According to the consumer financial company Bankrate, people making more than fifty thousand dollars a year spend, on average, one per cent of their income on tickets; those earning less than thirty-five thousand do so at thirteen per cent. In addition to the money spent on tickets, many of these players engage in all sorts of quote-unquote irrational gambling behaviors: buying only certain types of tickets and only at certain times of day, for example.

The popularity of the lottery is fueled by its promise of unimaginable wealth. Cohen argues that this fascination with the jackpot coincided with a decline in the security of middle-class life, as income inequality widened and health-care costs rose, and the long-held national promise that hard work and education would allow children to surpass their parents’ generation proved false.

Lottery players go in clear-eyed about the odds of winning, though they may not always follow sound statistical reasoning. They have these strange, irrational systems—often not borne out by statistical evidence—about lucky numbers and stores and the best time of day to buy tickets. They buy tickets for every drawing, even though they know that the chances of winning are minuscule.

They also realize that, while the difference in the odds between one-in-three million and one-in-three hundred million is minute to most, the difference in the prize money is enormous. It is this that drives a lot of lottery behavior, as Alexander Hamilton understood, and what the short story “The Lottery” reveals.

The odds of winning are determined by the number of tickets sold and the amount of money deducted for prizes, promoters’ profits, and taxes or other revenues. As the number of players grows, the prize money tends to increase in value and the number of smaller prizes decreases. For example, the first Powerball jackpot was a quarter of a billion dollars, and its subsequent jackpots have ballooned. In contrast, the jackpots of some state games have dwindled. The winner of the Powerball jackpot on December 31, 2012, was a group of three asset managers from Greenwich, Connecticut, who paid just over eighty thousand dollars for their ticket. They received $900,000 in actual cash and the rest in tax-free payments over thirty-two years. The winning numbers were 59, 70, and 44. The winnings were the highest ever awarded in a single drawing.