The Lottery’s Story


As state governments wrangle with budget crises that would enrage an increasingly anti-tax electorate, they have been turning to the lottery as a source of new revenues. And the result is that America’s lotteries are thriving. Americans now spend an estimated $100 billion on tickets each year. But the lottery’s story, both as a public game and a private industry, is more complicated than it first appeared.

In Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, the setting is a small American village governed by traditions and customs. Lottery Day is a big deal in this place, and all the family heads gather together on the day before the draw to have their names drawn for prizes ranging from a dozen eggs to one of the town’s barns.

The head of each family draws a folded slip of paper from a box, and on the back of the slips is written their name. Except for one of the slips, which has a black spot on it. If the family’s name is not on that spot, they must draw again for another spot. And so on. There is banter and merriment, but also some resentment as the townspeople see that other villages have stopped holding The Lottery.

For most of its history, the lottery was viewed as a harmless way to raise funds for a variety of public uses without raising taxes or cutting services. That changed in the nineteen-sixties, when the rise of inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War caused states to rethink their entire approach to funding government. For many, the only solution was to introduce a lottery.

Initially, critics of the lottery focused on its potential to produce compulsive gamblers and on its alleged regressive impact on low-income communities. But as the lottery grew in popularity and jackpots exploded to seemingly newsworthy amounts, these concerns gave way to a more generalized dissatisfaction with the state of modern life.

In the nineteen-seventies, revenues began to level off from the initial boom, and a new wave of innovation swept through the lottery business, with instant games such as Keno becoming popular and the introduction of more aggressive advertising. Lottery sales have since become responsive to economic fluctuations, increasing when incomes fall, unemployment rises, and poverty rates climb, and dropping when jobs are plentiful and wages increase.

The new innovations in lottery games are designed to keep players coming back for more. The merry-go-round of new games is not unlike the marketing tactics used by companies like Snickers bars or video-game makers, and it has been just as successful at driving revenues. But there are also real concerns about the effect that the proliferation of new games is having on families and our overall culture of addiction and irresponsibility. It is these concerns that make The Lottery so valuable. It reminds us that good intentions can lead to evil, and it is the capacity of individuals to stand up against what is wrong that makes for a just society.