For those who are not familiar with lotteries, let me begin with the very simple definition: People pay for a ticket, draw a number, and hope to win a prize. The prizes range from cash, to goods, to services. While some people do win big, most never do. Lotteries are incredibly popular, and have become a major source of revenue for state governments. In fact, they are the single largest form of gambling in the country.
The most common reason states promote lotteries is that they are a painless way to raise revenue. Lottery revenues are not subject to income, sales, or property taxes, and they are usually earmarked for specific purposes, such as education or social welfare programs. The vast majority of voters, especially those in conservative regions, appear to buy this argument, and state officials rarely challenge it.
As a result, state lotteries are now more popular than ever, with fifty percent of adults playing at least once a year. The lottery’s broad appeal owes much to its peculiarly effective constituencies, which include convenience store owners (who serve as the usual vendors); lottery suppliers (who give heavy contributions to state political campaigns); teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the extra money).
A large portion of the public also supports the lottery because they believe it is morally right to help children and other worthy causes through lottery proceeds. This is a particularly strong argument among lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite voters. But there is a problem with this view. As the historian Charles Cohen has written, it ignores the fact that most lottery players are not buying tickets for their own benefit, but rather for the good of others.
Tessie Hutchinson, a middle-aged housewife, is one of these constituents. She is late for the lottery celebration because she was washing dishes. When she draws her slip, she discovers that it is marked with a black spot. The villagers then persecute her with the same fervor that they use to kill anyone else who happens to draw the marked slip.
The villagers’ blind acceptance of this ritual is what makes the story so chilling. They recite a little traditional rhyme, quoting Old Man Warner, who is something like the town patriarch: “Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon.”
While many may argue that lottery profits are vital for state coffers and that there are better ways to raise funds than raising taxes, it is important to keep in mind the way these revenues are perceived. Whether through slogans about helping kids or the moral value of sports betting, state officials are sending the message that even if you lose, you should feel good about yourself because you did a favor for your community. In the antitax era of the late twentieth century, this is a dangerous message. It is a message that needs to be rethought. In an era where people are increasingly resentful of government at any level, it is imperative that the state recognize that there are limits to what it can do for its citizens.