Lottery is an absorbing short story by a writer known as “Matthew Thomas.” It opens with locals of a small town in the Midwest gathered for an annual rite, which happens to be the lottery. The community gathers in a field where children are piling stones to prepare for the drawing of tickets. Old Man Warner quotes an old proverb: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”
As the community waits for the results of the draw, we are given insight into its members’ hopes and fears. The story is told from the point of view of a middle-aged woman, Tessie Hutchinson, who is in a particularly vulnerable position since she has been marked with a number. Tessie’s husband Bill and the rest of the family are also present. They have all been buying tickets and putting them in a box that is being used as the drawing device. Tessie cries out that she is being treated unfairly, but the townspeople are quick to respond with stones. They defend the rite by claiming that it is necessary to ensure a good harvest.
According to Merriam-Webster, the term lottery means “a drawing of lots in which prizes are distributed among persons who pay a consideration for a chance.” However, the practice has also been used to draw names from a pool for military conscription, commercial promotions in which property is given away randomly, and the selection of jury members. Lotteries have a long history in the United States, and were once viewed as a mechanism for raising money for public projects such as canals, roads, and churches. They were also a popular way to raise funds for private ventures such as colleges and universities.
During the early post-World War II period, lotteries provided a method for state governments to increase their array of services without imposing too much of a burden on the middle class and working classes. But in the 1960s, those arrangements started to unravel because of rising costs and increasing inflation. The message that lottery commissions are relying on now is to convince people that playing the lottery is a fun, harmless activity and that it is a socially responsible way of raising money for schools and other state services.
The problem with this message is that it obscures the regressive nature of lottery funding. It also makes it harder for policymakers to talk about ways to improve equity by using other sources of revenue.
I’ve talked to a lot of lottery players, people who play for years, spending $50 or $100 a week on tickets. Most of them have clear-eyed ideas about the odds, and even if they don’t win, they know that the probability of winning is low. They often have quote-unquote systems, about lucky numbers and the best times to buy tickets. And they all know that the monetary prize is the small part of the value proposition. The entertainment and non-monetary value that they get from their tickets makes them a rational decision for them.