Lotteries are a form of gambling, with the prize money varying from a few hundred dollars to millions. Americans spend over $80 billion on lottery tickets annually, and some people do win. The odds are stacked against you, but there is still a nagging sliver of hope that your numbers will come up and you will win the big jackpot. But there are also hidden costs to winning, including a significant tax burden and an often devastating decline in the quality of life for many winners.
The short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson is set in a small town in rural America, a place where tradition and customs dominate the lives of its inhabitants. The main character, Mr. Summers, is a man who manages the local lottery and its social events. He and his associate, Mr. Graves, draw up a list of the major families in the town and then distribute lottery tickets to them, one per family.
It would be easy to dismiss the characters in the story as irrational, especially since they spend $50, $100 a week on lottery tickets and believe that their odds of winning are great. But the fact is, a lot of people do play the lottery, and many of them spend an inordinate amount of time and money on it. In the past, lotteries have been criticized for encouraging addictive behavior and encouraging gamblers to become addicted to the chance of winning huge sums of money. In addition to the addiction that many players experience, winning can have serious repercussions for the winner’s financial stability and well-being, and it is not uncommon for a lottery winner to go bankrupt within a few years.
In the early American colonies, lottery-like games were common ways for states to raise revenue without imposing onerous taxes on their citizens. The Continental Congress even held a lottery to try to fund the Revolutionary War. Although these early lottery games were not considered to be morally justified, they became popular because of the exigency of the era and the general aversion to taxation. Eventually, lottery-style games raised funds for everything from civil defense to churches to schools, and Harvard, Dartmouth, and Yale were all financed partly by state lotteries.
Today, lottery commissions promote their products in two primarily different ways. They emphasize that playing the lottery is fun, an experience that is facilitated by scratch-off tickets. They also rely on the message that even if you lose, you should feel good about yourself because lottery proceeds are a way to support the state. This is a blatantly false message that obscures how regressive and addictive lottery gaming actually is. It is time for the federal government to regulate this type of gambling. Until then, the lottery is going to be a big part of many people’s lives and it should be treated as a form of addiction and a moral vice. Until then, we need to keep an eye on it.