Lottery is a form of gambling in which participants pay a small sum of money to have the chance to win a big prize, such as cash or goods. The word lottery comes from the Latin for “casting of lots,” and a history of lotteries can be traced back to the earliest days of human civilization, with examples such as the keno slips found in a Chinese tomb dating to between 205 BC and 187 BC or the biblical references to casting lots to determine things like Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion.
In the modern world, state governments run a variety of lotteries to raise revenue for everything from roads and schools to subsidized housing units and kindergarten placements. These efforts are a familiar part of life, and a common way for state budgets to keep their heads above water when times get tough. But the popularity of these games is raising some serious questions about whether government should be in the business of promoting them and whether they serve the public interest.
When states adopt a lottery, the main argument for it is that proceeds benefit some specific public good, such as education. This message is especially effective when a state faces fiscal stress, and it works well to fend off arguments that any increased spending on the lottery could result in tax increases or cuts in other areas. But studies have also shown that state lotteries win broad public approval even when the objective fiscal situation is healthy.
Moreover, the growth of lotteries has tended to outpace state fiscal health. As a result, the money that states collect from them has become a growing percentage of total state revenue, and lottery officials face increasing pressure to expand into new forms of gambling. In their desire to increase revenues, lottery operators frequently take on debt and make decisions based on short-term gains rather than long-term benefits for society.
As a result, the majority of lottery players and revenues come from middle-income neighborhoods, while lower-income residents participate at far less proportionate levels. This is in addition to the fact that lottery advertisements often portray winners as incredibly lucky and wealthy, leading many low-income residents to believe that winning the lottery will be their only shot at prosperity.
Shirley Jackson’s story The Lottery, set in a remote American village, illustrates this point perfectly. In this tale of twisted family values, a woman named Tessie Hutchinson is rewarded with the fate that her children have chosen for her: death by stone. It is a grim reminder that, in the modern era of financial instability, when families can no longer rely on traditional patterns of wealth accumulation and job security to provide for their needs, the lottery may be seen as the last, best hope. But, as the stories of this month’s issue show, winning the lottery will not solve any of those problems. That is why we should not be afraid to question the role of the lottery in our society.