The Sinister Side of Lottery

Lottery is a common form of gambling that involves putting a number in a pot and then drawing it at random to determine a prize. Modern lotteries often involve a prize of money or goods, but they can also give away property or services that are not considered “gambling” in the strict sense of the word. Examples include the allocation of military conscription spots, commercial promotions in which property is given away to a select group of customers (such as a chance to win a vacation), and jury selection.

The short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson illustrates a more sinister side of this practice. In the story, a small-town community gathers in a town square to conduct its annual lottery. The children, recently on summer break, are the first to assemble in the square; they engage in stereotypical play of the sort that is a hallmark of rural life. Then, adult men begin to gather and display the warm, patriarchal behavior typical of this culture. The master of ceremonies for this lottery is Mr. Summers, a man who does not have children of his own. He carries a black box, which he sets on a stool in the center of the square. He describes it to the villagers as being an older version of an original (that is, more ancient) box that has been lost over time. The villagers revere the box, which is used only for this lottery.

In this patriarchal culture, women, and members of religious and ethnic minorities, are scapegoated to mark the limits of the masculine. This ritual of scapegoating is common in many societies and is facilitated by the power structure that organizes families around male adult members. This is a culture that has a strong sense of tradition, and it can be seen as an example of a cult-like group.

When states adopt a lottery, they often legislate a monopoly for themselves; they usually establish a public corporation to run the operation; start with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then expand the offerings in response to demand. Generally, the expansion of a lottery comes with increased scrutiny of its operations, particularly the problem of compulsive gamblers and the alleged regressive impact on lower-income communities.

It’s important to note that state revenue generated by a lottery is only a tiny fraction of total state budgets. However, that doesn’t mean that people should stop buying tickets. There’s an inextricable human impulse to gamble, especially if you believe that you might win big. What’s more, people spend billions on lottery tickets each year. This money could be better spent by people trying to build emergency savings or pay down their credit card debt. Instead, Americans should consider the larger implications of how this activity contributes to inequality and limited social mobility in a country that should be aspiring to be a global leader in these areas.