How the Lottery Works


When you pay for a lottery ticket, you usually select numbers from a list or mark a box on your playslip to indicate that you are willing to accept whatever number the computer randomly spits out. In modern lotteries, the prize money is the sum total of all remaining cash after expenses (including profits for the promoter, costs of promotion, and taxes or other revenues) are deducted.

The lottery is an ancient practice: it was used to decide everything from who gets to keep Jesus’ garments after his crucifixion to who will marry which family member in Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” Even when governments don’t organize lotteries, they use them as a revenue source, and they aren’t above using the psychology of addiction. Just look at how state lottery commissions hawk scratch-off tickets in the checkout line of convenience stores and gas stations or distribute Powerball and Mega Millions tickets like Snickers bars on the shelf of Dollar Generals.

The lottery’s modern incarnation began in the nineteen-sixties, when states that had expanded their social safety net found themselves facing budget crises that could only be resolved by raising taxes or cutting services—options that were unpopular with voters. Supporters of state-run gambling argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, the government should be allowed to take some of the profits. In the process, they dismissed long-standing ethical objections to gambling and turned the lottery into a form of government sponsored heroin.