Public Works and the Lottery


The lottery is a familiar form of gambling, with state governments offering tickets for a fixed prize that can be either cash or goods or services. As such, it is one of the most popular forms of gambling around the world. It is also a popular way to raise money for public works projects, though this use of lotteries is controversial.

The history of lotteries is long and varied. They are recorded in the Old Testament, where Moses was instructed to divide the land of Israel by lot; in Roman legends, where Nero loved to hold them at his Saturnalia feasts (where guests took home prizes, including slaves); and in many European countries during the 15th century, where they were used to fund town fortifications and help the poor. Lotteries were introduced to the American colonies in the 17th century, and became increasingly popular as states sought ways to solve budgetary crises without provoking an anti-tax public.

In the early nineteen-thirties, when lottery revenues began to increase substantially in many states, public officials were concerned about their dependence on them and about the impact of these games on society. But they were also looking for ways to finance a host of social welfare programs in the face of declining federal and local tax revenues, which had been exacerbated by a late-twentieth-century wave of anti-tax revolts.

Unlike taxes, which can be directly tied to specific expenditures, lottery proceeds are pooled and then distributed according to predetermined formulas. This means that the more tickets sold, the higher the prize amounts will be. The prizes are usually predetermined, and the profits for the promoter and other expenses are deducted from the total pool before it is awarded.

This enables state officials to claim that the lottery is not about money but rather about helping children, veterans or elderly people. It is a convenient argument, but it masks the fact that lotteries are regressive, disproportionately benefiting wealthier people while taking money from the poorest households.

The problem with the lottery is that it dangles instant riches in front of a population that desperately needs economic mobility, especially in an age of inequality and stagnant wages. That message, reflected in the massive billboards on highways that advertise the latest Mega Millions or Powerball jackpot, obscures how much of the population plays the lottery, what kind of people play it and how much money is spent on tickets each year.

The story shows how the lottery undermines human morality and demonstrates how easily it can be manipulated for selfish and dishonest purposes. In the end, the villagers do nothing of value with their lottery winnings. Jackson suggests that this is because human nature is evil. Even when the participants are merely interacting with one another, as they do in the story, their actions are tainted by hypocrisy and greed. The nave assumption that they will somehow do good with their winnings, is the only thing that allows them to ignore the taint of their actions.