When Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” was first published in 1948, The New Yorker received more letters than any work of fiction the magazine had ever published. The reason, one suspects, was not just that the story is chilling but that it reveals the ugly underbelly of human nature and our capacity for violence and selfishness.
The casting of lots to decide fates and property division has a long history in human societies. Lotteries as a means of raising money are even older, and their use by governments is quite common, particularly in Europe, where they were used to finance the building of towns and fortifications, and then later for public charities.
In the modern era, states have established their own lotteries to raise money for everything from road repairs to education. Unlike state taxes, lottery revenue is voluntary, and so it attracts people who would otherwise not pay taxes. In this way, lotteries bolster state coffers and, for the most part, voters have accepted them as a legitimate source of government funding.
Those who play the lottery know that their odds of winning are very low but still hold out some hope that they might be the lucky winner. Whether they are playing for fun or in the belief that they will win big, Americans spend over $80 billion on lottery tickets every year. The vast majority of those who play are not wealthy, but middle-class people whose incomes tend to be higher than the national average. The poor and the working class are not as likely to participate in the lottery, although some play for small amounts in their spare time.
While a small percentage of people will become millionaires, most of the lottery players who play each week do so with the understanding that their chances of winning are extremely slim. They are also aware that if they do win, they will have to pay large sums of money in taxes. Many of them will end up bankrupt in a few years.
Lottery supporters argue that the game is not only a form of entertainment but also provides valuable tax revenues for schools, roads, and other services. These arguments are not without merit, but they ignore the fundamental reality that the lottery is a form of gambling. Moreover, the money that is raised by lotteries is not just collected from individual players but also from convenience store operators (the main vendors for lottery tickets), suppliers to the industry, teachers in states where a portion of lottery revenues is earmarked for education, and state legislators.
Moreover, the marketing strategy used by the lotteries is not dissimilar to that of tobacco or video game companies. The ads, the look of the tickets, and even the math behind them are all designed to keep people addicted to the games. In this way, the lottery is a classic example of how the public policy process often proceeds in a piecemeal and incremental fashion, with little attention given to general policy implications.