The History of the Lottery

On Lottery Day, the heads of families draw a slip from a box. Only one is marked with a black spot. If it is drawn, the family will be punished.

It is a grimly satiric tale, in which the villagers are shown to be rotten to the core. Jackson depicts their cruelty in a way that is both chilling and believable.

The story is a classic example of public policy made piecemeal, and largely unaccountable to outside oversight. The lottery’s evolution in the twentieth century is a case in point. When state officials started out selling it as a silver bullet that would float most of the budget, they soon found that such claims were no longer tenable. In the nineteen-sixties, a time of population growth and high inflation, many states were finding that their coffers were growing empty. It became impossible to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, and both options proved extremely unpopular with voters.

Lottery commissioners quickly adapted. Instead of arguing that a lottery would cover a broad array of government services, they began promoting it as a means to fund one specific line item that was both popular and nonpartisan—usually education but occasionally elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans. These tactics are nothing new; they’re used by companies like tobacco and video game manufacturers, too. The result is that the odds are worse, but people keep buying tickets. The fact that the odds are so ridiculously bad has a weird effect on people: They believe, in a kind of meritocratic mythology, that they’re going to win someday.

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