The lottery is one of the most popular forms of gambling in the United States, and states promote it as a way to raise revenue. But just how meaningful that revenue is—and whether it’s worth the costs to people who lose money—is debatable.
The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history (Nero was a big fan), but the modern use of lotteries to dish out prizes and money for personal gain is much more recent. It started, Cohen suggests, in the nineteen-sixties, when state budgets got squeezed by population growth, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War. Balancing the books required raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were unpopular with voters.
As a result, the lottery became a popular alternative to raising taxes. States embraced it as a means to balance their budgets without enraging an anti-tax electorate, and the practice spread quickly. Today, more than thirty-four states have state-run lotteries.
In the earliest of these, a family head draws a slip of paper with a number from a basket. The winnings are a hefty sum and will be used to buy food, pay bills, or maybe even build a new house. It’s a long shot, but somebody has to win. There’s an inextricable human impulse to take a chance and perhaps become a millionaire—even though, as the lottery billboards imply, the odds are really against you.
While the story does touch on some of the issues around the lottery, it’s mainly a tale of how an inexplicable human need to gamble can become a self-destructive and damaging addiction. The author, Walter Elder, seems to have recognized this when he wrote the story in 1955, and he concludes:
As we continue to witness stories of lottery winners who sleep as paupers and wake as millionaires—and all the misery that comes with it—it’s important to remember this cautionary tale. As the ubiquity of the lottery grows, it’s worth taking a closer look at its true costs and benefits—not just to individual players but to the larger society that supports them. Those costs, unfortunately, can be hard to quantify. They include, for example, the hidden costs of promoting an ideology that encourages the average person to spend their lives in the desperate hope of winning. But the benefits can be even harder to assess, especially if they’re obscured by a desire to believe in miracles.