The Costs of Playing the Lottery

In this short story Shirley Jackson describes a small town’s annual lottery, a ritual that ends in the stoning of one of its inhabitants. The story reveals the details of a modern small-town America, as well as its traditions and values. The villagers’ participation in the lottery appears to be an essential part of their lives; they are willing to risk a trifling sum for a chance at a substantial prize.

The story is not intended to be critical of the lottery, or even to question the legitimacy of the stoning. Instead, it is meant to raise awareness of the hidden costs associated with the game, which are borne by working people and their families, but not the rich or the powerful. The lottery is a popular form of gambling, and in 2021 Americans spent upwards of $100 billion on tickets. The fact that state lotteries are advertised as a way to raise money for education, for example, obscures how much these games erode the finances of ordinary working people.

State lottery commissions have tried to mitigate this regressivity by emphasizing that playing the lottery is a game, and that the experience of scratching a ticket is fun. This rebranding, however, obscures the regressivity of lottery play, as well as the extent to which people are addicted to the game. It also masks how skewed the odds of winning are, and how disproportionately the wealthiest spend their money on tickets.

For most people, the utility of a monetary loss is outweighed by the enjoyment gained from playing the lottery. This is why the wealthy do not avoid playing; they simply buy fewer tickets than those with lower incomes. For example, according to a study by Bankrate, players earning more than fifty thousand dollars per year spend about one percent of their income on lottery tickets, while those earning less than thirty thousand spend thirteen percent.

During the immediate post-World War II period, many states used lotteries as a way to expand their array of services without burdening middle- and working-class taxpayers with high taxes. But by the nineteen-seventies, state budgets were running into trouble, and the era of a middle class that could expect to live comfortably with a good job, adequate health insurance, and pensions began to fade. The lottery became a popular way to fill state coffers without infuriating an anti-tax electorate.