The Problems With Playing the Lottery
A lottery is a game in which participants pay a small amount of money, usually a dollar or two, for the chance to win a large sum of money or other valuable items. In most modern lotteries, people choose a group of numbers on a playslip or let computers do it for them. The prize is awarded to those whose numbers match those randomly drawn by the machine. In addition to raising money for prizes, lotteries often raise funds for a variety of public projects.
Lotteries have been around for centuries, but modern versions became more popular in the nineteen-sixties when growing awareness of the money to be made in gambling collided with state budget crises. For many states, especially those that provided generous social safety nets, balancing the budget became impossible without increasing taxes or cutting services—a combination that would have been extremely unpopular with voters.
So, to solve the problem, politicians turned to the lottery. Lotteries provide governments with a source of painless revenue: players voluntarily spend their own money to fund state government projects that they would otherwise have been taxed for. In this way, lottery profits avoid the political risk of raising taxes and instead allow officials to bolster spending on projects that voters want.
There’s also the intangible lure of winning big money. In an era when social mobility is low and the opportunity to escape poverty through luck seems elusive, winning millions of dollars can seem a realistic and achievable goal. And it’s not hard to see why so many people are willing to play.
But there’s more to the story than that. While it’s true that some people simply like to gamble, there’s much more going on here than simple human greed. The real issue, Cohen argues, is that lottery playing erodes the capacity for saving. When people buy tickets to the lottery, they give up the ability to save for their retirement and college tuition. And because lottery prizes tend to be far larger than the amount that people spend on tickets, those purchases often end up costing more in the long run.
Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” explores these issues. In the story, the villagers gather to draw their slips, and there is banter among them as they compare notes about who’s winning and how much they’re staking on the next drawing. The story also makes use of casual references to traditional rhymes, a nod to the tradition that the lottery is supposed to reinforce and a warning against its dangers. In addition, the story’s protagonist, James Harris, is a man who’s devoted to tradition—a devotion that has dangerous consequences.