The Lottery and Its Dangerous Consequences

Making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long history, with a number of instances recorded in the Bible. But distributing prize money for material gain has a more recent origin. The first public lotteries to sell tickets for prizes in the form of money were held in the Low Countries around the 15th century, raising funds to repair town walls and help poor people.

But state officials and licensed promoters soon found that they could raise far more money by offering tickets for things like units in a subsidized housing project or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school. The financial lottery has become an entrenched part of state culture, with people spending over $100 billion on these tickets in 2021. It’s a major source of revenue for the states, but that revenue comes with a real cost in terms of social justice.

Jackson’s story takes place on an unspecified day in an unnamed small town, during a yearly lottery ritual that lasts only a couple of hours. The narrator observes that the villagers, recently returned from summer break, assemble in the town square to participate in a ceremony that reflects their stereotypical small-town values. The children, who are the first to assemble, engage in typical children’s play, and the adults quickly begin chatting among themselves.

After a while, the narrator watches as Mrs. Hutchinson’s children draw their slips. A general sigh is let out when they open their papers: Nancy and Bill’s are blank, while Tessie’s is marked with a black spot. This makes her the winner, and everyone prepares for a gruesome end.

The family theme underscores the story’s main point, that the lottery is a dangerous ritual in which family members only care about themselves. The family’s loyalty to one another is essentially irrelevant. Tessie’s kids are more concerned with their own survival than with supporting their mother. As a result, they ignore her warnings and go ahead with the lottery, despite their mother’s knowledge of the consequences.

The lesson of this story is that states should focus on the social costs and benefits of their lottery systems. When they do, they can avoid the pitfalls of a lottery that turns into a regressive tax on the working class. In fact, studies show that the popularity of a lottery does not correlate to its actual fiscal health in the state. Rather, it is most popular in states with larger social safety nets, where lottery revenues are seen as a way to expand those services without imposing heavy taxes on the middle class and working class.