How the Lottery Affects Society


The casting of lots for the allocation of property and even life chances has a long record in human history, including several examples from the Bible. But lotteries as a public source of revenue are much more recent, dating back to the fourteen-hundreds when they first became common in the Low Countries and England for the purpose of financing town fortifications and, later, for providing assistance to the poor.

During the late-twentieth century, when America was growing rapidly and its social safety net grew ever more elaborate, state legislators began to look for ways to raise revenue without the ire of voters who were increasingly resistant to any increase in taxes or reductions in services. Lotteries seemed like a good solution, since people voluntarily spend their own money to play and the proceeds are not technically a tax.

New Hampshire launched the modern era of state lotteries in 1964 and its success prompted other states to adopt them, most of them in the Northeast and Rust Belt. They did so as voters grew aware of the large amounts that could be won and as politicians came to see that they might get more money from the lottery than they would from raising taxes or cutting services.

Lottery revenues expanded rapidly once they began, but have now plateaued and may even be declining in some states. To sustain their revenues, lotteries have turned to a variety of innovations, such as video poker and keno, and they spend heavily on advertising. But despite these efforts, there are real concerns about how the industry affects the general public and its effects on lower-income groups in particular.

The short story “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, describes one of the ways in which lotteries can have profound societal impacts. Its setting is a small rural American village, where customs and traditions dominate the population. Although the characters in this setting have many differences, they all share a certain degree of iniquity and naiveté. In this sense, the short story is a warning about the pervasive nature of lotteries and their potential to produce devastating consequences.

A main theme in this short story is how naive and ignorant most of the participants in the lottery are. For example, Mrs. Delacroix, the winner of the top prize in the lotto, is very proud of her determination to win. She also has a quick temper, which is illustrated when she picks up a rock that has been thrown at her by a passing driver. Ultimately, the lottery has a major impact on the characters and on the lives of the inhabitants of this community. It is not only a source of wealth but also of guilt and sorrow.