Is the Lottery a Gamble?


In the story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, details of small-town American life are embroidered upon a description of an annual rite known as a lottery. The event takes place in a small village, where locals are divided on whether it should be discontinued. Several nearby villages have stopped the lottery, and a few villagers in the unnamed town are threatening to follow suit.

But is the lottery really a gamble? There is a sense in which it is. For individuals, the expected utility of winning the lottery can be high enough that paying for a ticket becomes a rational decision, if the odds of winning are favorable. But in reality, the odds of winning are extremely improbable. Even if an individual wins, the winnings can have massive tax implications, and often the winners go bankrupt within a couple years.

The history of lottery is rooted in ancient practices, including the Old Testament’s instructions to Moses on conducting a census and dividing land by lot. The Roman emperors used lotteries to give away slaves and property, and they were brought to the United States by British colonists. Today, the lottery is a common source of state revenue.

To keep ticket sales robust, states have to pay out a respectable portion of the sales in prize money. However, this reduces the percentage of proceeds available to the state for things like education, which is one of the ostensible reasons for the lottery in the first place. Unlike a tax, the lottery is not explicitly seen as a form of government revenue, and consumers are not clear about the implicit tax rate on their purchases.

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