A Rethinking of the Lottery


A game in which tokens are distributed or sold, the winners being selected by lot. The prizes may be money or goods. Lotteries are often sponsored by states as a means of raising funds. The term is also applied to a chance selection made by fate, as in the case of combat duty.

Lottery is a common fixture of American life. Americans spend upwards of $100 billion a year on lottery tickets, making it the most popular form of gambling in the country. And while we might think that this money could be better spent on emergency savings or paying off debt, there’s a deeper problem with lotteries that state governments promote: They divert income from the middle and working classes.

The short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson is set in a small American town. The setting is a place where traditions and customs are tightly held by the villagers, even as the outside world slowly intrudes on their lives. The town’s annual lottery is the centerpiece of this story, an event where a single member of each household draws a slip from a box that contains all the tickets. Whoever gets the marked slip is sentenced to death by stoning. The villagers believe that this act purges the town of evil and allows for the good to prosper.

Until recently, most state governments promoted their lottery games as a way to help the poor. But with states now in dire financial condition, these programs are not doing much to improve the lives of anyone but the privileged few who manage to win the big jackpots. In fact, many lottery players spend a significant percentage of their income on tickets each week. And even for those who actually win, there are huge tax implications that can decimate the actual value of a jackpot.

For most people, the decision to purchase a lottery ticket is based on a trade-off between entertainment and non-monetary utility. If the expected utility of winning is high enough, it can outweigh the disutility of monetary loss and make the purchase a rational choice. But what about those who are not particularly entertained by the idea of winning or do not benefit from the non-monetary benefits? Is it fair to use their money to support the wealthy few?

A rethinking of the lottery is necessary. In the US, there is an ever-increasing amount of wealth in the hands of a very few, and we should not be using that wealth to fund things that would not benefit the majority. In other words, it is time to stop treating the lottery like a charitable endeavor and instead start considering it as the predatory enterprise that it really is. The lottery is not only a waste of money for the vast majority of participants; it’s also a giant redistribution of income from the middle and working classes to the very rich. And that’s not something we should be proud of.