The lottery is a form of gambling in which people purchase numbered tickets and hope to win prizes based on a random drawing. It is an especially popular way for states to raise revenue. In 2021, Americans spent about $100 billion on lottery tickets. While the game might seem harmless enough, the fact is that the lottery has a dark underbelly. It can foster feelings of resentment and desperation. It can make people feel that their life is hopeless, even when the odds of winning are astronomically low. And it can encourage an addiction to chance.
In America, the popularity of the lottery boomed in the nineteen seventies and eighties at a time when financial security for working families was fading. The wealth gap widened, job security and pensions eroded, health-care costs rose and the long-standing national promise that education and hard work would lead to rising incomes and increasing wealth was starting to look like a fairy tale. State governments saw in the lottery a way to generate revenues without the politically sensitive prospect of raising taxes.
For many voters, the lottery became an attractive alternative to the feared pain of paying higher taxes. In addition, it gave people a small sliver of hope that they might become one of the lucky ones, that the odds were not as bad as they seemed. And so a multistate lottery industry was born.
But the state lotteries aren’t just selling a dream; they’re also helping to perpetuate a system of class inequality. Lottery winnings tend to go to wealthy households, while the poorest residents are disproportionately less likely to play. And because the prizes are often so small, they can’t compensate for the hefty financial losses most players face.
Despite these economic realities, most people continue to buy tickets. It isn’t easy to explain why. Part of the answer lies in the psychology of addiction. The lottery is designed to be addictive. Everything about it, from its advertising to the math behind it, is meant to keep people hooked. It’s not so different from the strategies used by video-game companies or tobacco makers.
But the biggest reason why people keep playing is probably that they do so in the belief that their actions are morally justified. The villagers in Jackson’s story are not just killing someone to maintain tradition; they’re doing so because they believe they have the right to do so. Their blind acceptance of the lottery has made ritual murder a natural part of their lives. And that is a terrifying thing to think about. Whether it’s fair or not, we shouldn’t be encouraging such behavior in our society. That is why it’s important to understand the real cost of lottery gambling. And to consider whether the benefits are really worth the trade-offs. Then we can decide whether or not it’s time to rethink the lottery.