The Rise of the Lottery

In the early years of America, lotteries helped finance European settlement in the New World. They also became common in the colonies themselves, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. They were even entangled with slavery, as when George Washington managed a lottery that included human beings as prizes and when one formerly enslaved man, Denmark Vesey, used his winnings to foment a slave rebellion. In general, though, the early incarnation of the modern lottery, in which individuals pay to place numbers on a printed slip and win a prize if the winning combination matches those drawn at random, was a success.

The lottery was no longer merely a form of entertainment or an occasional diversion, but a major source of income for many families and a primary contributor to state coffers. The rise of the lottery came in a time when Americans were growing aware of the profits to be made in the gambling industry and when, as Cohen describes, states faced budget crises and sought ways to balance their finances that would not rouse their anti-tax, pro-business electorates.

During the nineteen-sixties, as inflation, the cost of war and the social safety net eroded the nation’s prosperity, and as unemployment, health care costs and pension funds rose, state funding began to dry up. As a result, states were forced to decide between raising taxes and cutting services and the appeal of a lottery seemed obvious to many voters.

The first state lottery of the modern era was in New Hampshire in 1964, and thirteen more followed it in less than a decade. These lotteries were popular in the Northeast and Rust Belt, but not all of them were financially successful. Some were hampered by shady business practices, including the use of stale numbers and other questionable methods for determining winners, while others simply ran out of money because people were spending far more than they were taking in.

To remedy this, the new advocates of state-run lotteries devised a new argument. They dismissed long-standing ethical objections to gambling and argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, government should be allowed to take some of the profits. The argument worked, and the lottery spread across the country, with few states opposing it.

A key lesson from Shirley Jackson’s short story is that the power of tradition can be so strong that a rational mind cannot overcome it. This is clearly seen in the way that Mr. Summers and his associate Mr. Graves arrange the lottery in their remote village, with all of its traditions and customs. Rather than taking an objective view of the situation, they are blinded by their own prejudices and beliefs and end up putting in a lot of money for little chance of success. This is not unlike our modern obsession with “getting rich” via the stock market, through real estate or by buying a winning lottery ticket.