The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery


The lottery is one of America’s most popular forms of gambling, with ticket sales reaching a record high of $100 billion in 2021. As such, it may seem like a harmless way to raise money for things like education and public parks. But, as the author of this short story demonstrates, it is a form of gambling that is not without its ugly underbelly. In fact, it has become a proxy for a deeper economic crisis in which people have begun to buy into the notion that the ultimate jackpot is just around the corner.

In a small-town, rural community in Pennsylvania, Bill and Tessie draw slips from a box for the chance to win a big sum of money. The slips are numbered, and the winning number is announced. Tessie is ecstatic to have won the lottery, but Bill feels the game is rigged. He becomes increasingly frustrated as he sees the lottery as a scapegoat for their ills: “If he wins, he’ll fix all the problems we’ve got,” she says. “If he loses, everything will be fine.”

While the story’s setting is specific, the theme of lottery as a proxy for a deeper economic crisis is very relevant to contemporary life. In this era of growing inequality, the American dream has all but disappeared: health-care costs have soared, pensions have collapsed, incomes have stagnated, and the prospect that children will be better off than their parents has largely been deferred to the future.

Lotteries have a long history. They were common in the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan) and are attested to in biblical texts, where the casting of lots is used for a variety of purposes, from dividing property among heirs to determining who gets Jesus’ clothes after his Crucifixion. In the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, towns held lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and poor relief.

Cohen argues that the modern lottery emerged in the nineteen-seventies, when rising awareness of the huge riches to be made in the gambling industry collided with state budget crises. With the population rapidly increasing, inflation accelerating, and war expenses mounting, many states could no longer balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which are unpopular with voters. Lotteries seemed to be a painless alternative, especially because the prize amounts were not set in stone; they could increase or decrease depending on the amount of money raised.

Today, most lotteries are marketed as ways to pay for education and other public services; some even provide funds to help families who have lost their jobs or are disabled. The resulting profits can be enormous, but so are the losses for those who buy tickets and don’t win. In the end, the lottery is no panacea. It’s not even a silver bullet: The odds of winning are slim to none. In fact, it’s much more likely that you will be struck by lightning or become a billionaire than to win the lottery.