The Lottery is a story about tradition that reveals how strong irrational habits can be. The characters in this story, like the people in the world around them, often have a hard time understanding why things work the way they do. In the story, Shirley Jackson tries to make her readers understand that lottery is not just a game—it’s an integral part of their lives.
In a typical lottery, the organizers offer a prize fund consisting of cash or goods that equals or exceeds the total value of tickets sold. The prize amount can be a fixed amount or a percentage of ticket sales (or both). Some lotteries have prizes that are predetermined, while others allow purchasers to select their own numbers. Regardless of the format, the organizers must make sure that the prize amount does not exceed the costs and expenses of the lottery.
Throughout the history of lotteries, many states have prohibited them, while other states have used them to raise money for public works or schools. In the United States, state lotteries began to grow in popularity during the nineteen-sixties, as a growing awareness of the huge potential profits in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. With inflation and the cost of war eating into government revenue, America’s prosperity began to wane, and states needed a way to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.
Lotteries seemed to be a good solution: they could raise a lot of money, and since winners had to choose from a fixed number of items, it was impossible for anyone to win more than their share of the prize. So even though the odds of winning were astronomically low, people were still willing to play. The fact that the odds got even worse as more and more money was added to the prize pool helped fuel this trend.
While defenders of the lottery often argue that it is not a tax on stupidity and that players simply don’t understand how unlikely it is to win, reality is more complicated. As with all commercial products, lottery sales increase when incomes fall and unemployment rises, and it is not a coincidence that the most heavily promoted lottery products are in poor, Black, or Latino neighborhoods.
As the economic problems in the nation grew worse, more and more people turned to the lottery for hope. They became obsessed with unimaginable wealth, and they believed that the lottery was their last, best, or only chance of a new life. As a result, they spent more and more of their hard-earned paychecks on tickets, and the odds of winning got worse and worse. This, of course, was exactly what the lottery organizers wanted. They convinced people that the lottery was a purely social service, and that it was their civic duty to buy a ticket so that they would “feel better about themselves.” In truth, the message was a scam.