In the short story “Lottery” Shirley Jackson writes of a village gathering for a lottery. “The children assembled first, of course,” she notes. The order is a remark about their natural inclination to gather for parades and processions, but it also suggests that they are indifferent to the odds of winning the lottery. The adults have a clearer view of the matter: They know that the odds are long, but they persist in playing anyway because they’ve come to believe that the lottery is their only way out of their precarious circumstances.
The story is set in a small rural American town, and we can’t be sure whether the people who play the lottery really are as ignorant of mathematics and statistics as they seem. Perhaps the villagers are simply trying to give their children a chance at some measure of prosperity. In the years that followed World War II, a large number of state governments adopted lotteries to raise money for everything from road construction to subsidized health care. These lotteries provided states with a source of revenue that wouldn’t upset voters by raising taxes.
Politicians promoting lotteries usually emphasize that they are a painless form of taxation. They claim that the winners voluntarily spend their money, and that this enables them to provide more public services without burdening ordinary citizens. In reality, though, state lotteries are nothing more than a form of gambling, and the mathematics behind them is quite simple: A lottery involves a pool of funds from players’ purchases and other sources that is used to pay for prizes, promoter’s profits, and advertising costs. The actual amount of the jackpot is a function of the number and value of tickets sold.
In addition, lottery participants are often subjected to an onslaught of advertising and other psychological manipulation that is similar to the tactics used by video-game manufacturers and tobacco companies. The result is that many of the same addictive behaviors are present in modern state lotteries that we’d expect to see in an illegal casino.
For most people, the odds of winning a lottery jackpot are not as long as those of being struck by lightning, but the odds are still pretty dismal. As we’ve seen in real life, most working Americans won’t win the lottery, but they continue to play because of a deep-seated belief that the lottery is their only hope for escaping poverty or, at the very least, getting out of their current precarious situation. That’s why the lottery is so popular. It’s the irrational dream that keeps on giving. And it’s why the lottery is so profitable. It’s an exploitation of the human need to escape from the realities of one’s life. It’s the ultimate form of bait and switch. The people who play it don’t even realize they are being manipulated. And the manipulators are having a ball. All this is a very sad commentary on our modern society. We should be ashamed of it.