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The Truth About the Lottery

The short story by James Agee, Lottery, is an indelible portrait of small-town American life. It tells the story of a village gathered for an annual lottery drawing in June. Children pile up stones for the drawing, and Old Man Warner mutters an old proverb: “Lottery in June; corn be heavy soon.”

State-sponsored lotteries make much of their money from super users—people who play the lottery every week, buying tickets that cover all the numbers and combinations that are possible. But even for these people, the odds are not that great. In fact, if they play enough games and win, the cost of their tickets could actually be higher than the prize.

Besides that, lotteries are often rigged. According to Les Bernal, an anti-state-sponsored gambling activist, up to 70 to 80 percent of lottery sales come from just 10 percent of people who play the game. And those players tend to be poorer, less educated, nonwhite and male.

If you’re lucky enough to win, you can choose between a lump sum or an annuity payment—the former gives you immediate cash, the latter spreads out your payout over time. The amount you get in your first year will depend on the rules of the lottery, and how you plan to invest it.

In the immediate post-World War II period, when state governments began experimenting with new ways to raise revenue, they believed lotteries could help them grow their social safety nets without the kinds of onerous taxes on the working class that had historically plagued America. But by the 1960s, those arrangements began to crumble.