The Odd History of the Lottery

The lottery, which raises billions of dollars a year for everything from medical research to the state police force, is one of the most popular forms of gambling in America. It has a certain glamour, partly because it makes people believe that anyone can win; in fact, the odds are so stacked against them that winning is statistically unlikely. Yet it persists, and people are willing to spend billions of dollars a week on tickets. Whether you buy into this idea or not, the fact is that people do play the lottery, and that they are spending so much money on something with such low odds says a lot about our culture.

The story begins with Tessie, the wife of a town patriarch, assembling her family in front of the town square to take part in the Lottery. They are among the first to do so, and Jackson’s use of the phrase “of course” implies that this is the order in which they have always assembled for the Lottery.

Tessie is preparing to make her selection when the townspeople begin hurling stones at her. They do so in a ritual that mirrors the stoning of the town’s scapegoat, an act that cleanses the community of its evils and allows for its renewal.

It is in this context that the story begins to explore a number of themes, including a sense of morality and the notion of luck. It is a very odd and very American phenomenon.

In Cohen’s telling, the modern lottery started in the immediate post-World War II period, when states began to expand their array of social safety net services and found that they needed more revenue to pay for them. This arrangement ran into a wall in the late nineteen-sixties as inflation, population growth, and the cost of the Vietnam War made it increasingly difficult for most states to balance their budget without raising taxes or cutting services—and both options are unpopular with voters.

As a result, legalization advocates were forced to reposition the lottery as a painless form of taxation. They stopped arguing that the proceeds would float most of a state’s budget and instead honed in on a single line item, usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid to veterans—services that were popular and nonpartisan and thus palatable to a broad swath of voters.

Today, lottery commissioners promote the idea that lottery participation is a matter of choice and not need—that playing it is akin to buying a Snickers bar at a Dollar General or picking up a video game at a Toys R Us. They also use the psychology of addiction, designing everything from the look of lottery tickets to the math behind their results to keep players hooked. But these arguments obscure how deeply the lottery is rooted in our culture. As we will see, that is a problem.