The Cost of the Lottery

People in the United States spent upwards of $100 billion on lottery tickets in 2021, making it by far the most popular form of gambling in the country. Lotteries rely on two messages to convince people to play: first, they present the game as a way to win huge sums of money that can change your life. Second, they emphasize that buying a ticket is a civic duty, because it helps the state. Both of those messages mask the true cost of the lottery, which isn’t a small amount of money for someone who wins but an enormous sum of tax dollars from those who lose.

The story centers around Tessie, a middle-aged housewife who is late to the Lottery because she had to wash breakfast dishes. She is a member of the working class, and her family’s income is barely enough to pay for basic living expenses. Tessie’s husband, Bill, has to work a second job, and the couple can barely afford to keep up with their mortgage. Tessie’s son is a teenager, and he has been trying to get the money to attend college by entering lotteries, but it’s not going well.

When the family draws their number, they discover that one of the numbers is marked with a black spot. The head of the household has to draw again, and if the next number is marked, everyone in the family must start over. It’s at this point that the story begins to reveal the real cost of lottery: that the whole thing is just a scam designed to steal millions from ordinary people.

The story also exposes the hypocrisy of many people who participate in lotteries, including Tessie. Although she wants to win, she knows she won’t. The truth is, a person is much more likely to lose than win. In the United States, for example, a winner will be taxed 24 percent of their winnings, but that doesn’t seem to stop people from spending large chunks of their income on tickets.

Lotteries have a long history in human culture, and it isn’t just that people like to gamble. They can be an effective tool for raising funds for public needs, and states have used them in the past to fund roads, canals, churches, schools, colleges, hospitals, and even wars.

In the immediate post-World War II period, the states saw lotteries as a way to expand their social safety nets without especially burdensome taxes on the working class. But that arrangement dissolved as the costs of the war inflated state budgets. Currently, states rely on lotteries for about a quarter of their revenue. While there are many reasons to oppose the idea of state-sponsored gambling, it is important to remember that the percentage of state revenue that comes from lotteries is a fraction of the overall cost of running the government. That’s worth considering the next time you see a lottery advertisement on the highway.