A lottery is a game that involves paying for the chance to win a prize, often a large sum of money. It’s a form of gambling that’s also been used to raise funds for things like public works projects. People have an inextricable urge to gamble, and a big part of the lottery’s appeal is that it offers the chance to get rich fast, without any of the risks of traditional gambling. That’s why you see billboards all over the place proclaiming that the latest jackpot is worth millions of dollars.
The idea of winning the lottery is not new, though it has changed considerably over time. It’s been around for centuries, and the practice was even a popular pastime during the Roman Empire (Nero, for instance, loved it) and is attested to in the Bible, where lots were cast to decide everything from who got to keep Jesus’ garments after the Crucifixion to who would receive land and slaves as a reward for service. Lotteries are still very popular today, and they have a number of uses. In modern times, they’re used to give away prizes like cars, cash, and vacations, but they’ve also become an important tool in raising funds for schools, charities, and public works projects.
One of the reasons that lotteries are so popular is that, as Cohen notes in his article, people “have a natural impulse to dream about sudden wealth.” But there’s more than that. Lotteries are dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. The obsession with multimillion-dollar jackpots grew in the nineteen seventies and eighties as income gaps widened, job security declined, health-care costs rose, and for most people the long-held American promise that hard work and education would allow them to live better than their parents was quickly becoming a thing of the past.
The story of the villagers in Jackson’s short piece shows how people can be persecuted by the state, even when they are not guilty of any crime. The way that the villagers treat Tessie Hutchinson is indicative of how people can be turned into victims of the lottery by the simple fact that they draw the wrong slip of paper.
In America, where the lottery was first introduced, it was a solution to states’ budget problems that allowed them to expand their range of services without incurring too much anger among voters who were already upset about state taxes. Over time, it became a “nonpartisan way to fund things that most people want and agree on,” and in many places it was the only source of revenue for everything from civil defense to public buildings and highways. As lottery popularity grew, however, states became more and more divided over whether it was morally right to raise money this way. They began to recast it as a way to cover a single line item in the budget, usually some kind of service that appealed to voters’ moral sensibilities, such as education or aid for veterans.