The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery

The lottery has become an inextricable part of American life, a game that Americans spend upward of $100 billion on each year. While the game has a number of popular features, including the ability to win large sums of money with little effort and a low financial cost (compared to other forms of gambling), it also has an ugly underbelly. For one thing, it dangles the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. And it exploits an unfortunate human impulse to gamble.

In the story, Jackson depicts a bucolic small town ritual, an annual lottery where villagers gather in the main square and each selects a piece of paper with numbers written on it. They then place their slips into a large basket, where they are mixed together and drawn in groups by the men of the village. After a bit of back-and-forth among the men, Mrs. Delacroix, the narrator’s aunt, and Bill, Jr. each find their papers blank, a general sigh is let out, and then Mr. Summers pulls out Tessie’s, which is marked with a black spot.

She protests that the drawing is unjust, and a mob forms. The narrator notes that scapegoats often play a critical role in human societies, and this is certainly the case here. Tessie has become a scapegoat for the family’s poverty and her husband’s addiction to gambling. She is a woman of lower class and status, and it is no accident that she is singled out.

Lotteries have a long record in human history, but the distribution of prize money in exchange for tickets is a relatively recent development. The first recorded public lotteries in the West involving tickets and prizes of money occurred in the 15th century, with a variety of towns holding them to raise funds for town fortifications and the poor.

State governments adopted lotteries in the early 20th century, and they have been a fixture in the American economy since. The popularity of state lotteries has remained high, even in times of economic stress, with few correlations between the fiscal health of a state and its level of lottery participation. The reasons for this persistence are complex and multidimensional, but in part it has to do with the way lotteries are marketed.

While state lotteries are promoted as a source of revenue for a host of public purposes, few states have any coherent “lottery policy.” Instead, the establishment of lotteries has been a classic example of how public policy is made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall overview. State officials thus have inherited a set of policies and a dependency on lottery revenues, which can be difficult to control or even see clearly.

In addition to the question of whether lotteries should be allowed at all, there are many other issues that deserve scrutiny. These include their potential to produce serious behavioral problems, the extent to which they may promote addictive gambling, and their regressive impact on the poor.