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Evaluating a Lottery


The story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson is a classic tale about small-town life that has been widely anthologized and studied for its many themes. It is a reminder that evil can lurk even in seemingly idyllic places. It is also a reminder that people need to be able to stand up against authority if something is wrong.

It seems unlikely that the real world will ever match the fanciful events of the story, but it is a reminder to be cautious when it comes to money. Even a few dollars can be enough to cause trouble in the lives of people who have little or no income to begin with. Having some sense of how much money you can afford to spend and what the odds are of winning is an important part of evaluating a lottery.

The first state lottery was established in New Hampshire in 1964. Thirteen more states introduced it over the next few years, all of them in the Northeast and Rust Belt. By that time, states had started looking for ways to pay for their expanding array of social services without onerous taxes on the middle class and working classes. Lotteries seemed like a reasonable alternative that wouldn’t provoke an antitax revolt.

Once a lottery has been established, however, discussion and criticism shifts from whether it is desirable to specific features of its operation, including the problem of compulsive gambling and its alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups. These issues are not just reactions to, but drivers of, the continuing evolution of state lottery operations.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the larger the jackpot gets, the more people want to play. The lottery industry knows this and plays it to its advantage, a strategy not dissimilar to that used by the makers of Snickers bars or video games. The big prizes get a lot of free publicity on newscasts and on web sites, and the bigger they are, the more likely it is that they will carry over to the next drawing, driving ticket sales.

The same logic that explains why jackpots get larger and larger also explains why state lottery officials don’t seem to be interested in limiting the size of their prizes. The reason is obvious: Large jackpots drive ticket sales and make the games more attractive to a larger number of potential players, especially if those tickets are cheap. To keep jackpots growing, lottery officials simply make them more difficult to win. Odds were once one-in-three million; they are now, on average, one-in-five million.