A lottery is a form of gambling that involves the drawing of numbers or symbols to select a winner. Prizes may range from small amounts to a single grand prize. Organizers deduct costs and profits, and the remainder is awarded to winners. Unlike other forms of gambling, which may be legal in some countries but not others, lotteries are usually government-sponsored and regulated by law.
The modern incarnation of the lottery began in the nineteen-sixties, when state budget crises (fueled by inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War) forced states to choose between raising taxes or cutting services. A handful of states started lotteries to supplement their budgets and appease an increasingly anti-tax electorate.
Lotteries, they hoped, would provide an easy way to pay for everything from highways to social safety nets. But while most state governments have run lotteries like businesses, with the goal of maximizing revenues, they have also promoted them in ways that are often at cross-purposes to public policy. Lottery advertising tends to promote games with large jackpot prizes and inflated odds of winning. It targets a consumer base that is disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite. Moreover, lottery play declines with age and as incomes increase.
Despite the odds, lotteries generate billions in annual revenue. Many people play for fun, while others believe the lottery is their answer to a better life. Lottery winners receive their prizes in the form of cash or goods, but the vast majority of people who buy tickets do not win. As a result, the vast majority of people do not understand that the chances of winning are extremely low.
Cohen’s story takes place in a small rural town, where a group of family heads gather for the weekly Lottery. There is banter, and the elderly man in charge of the proceedings quotes a traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn will be heavy soon.”
The story illustrates how much the lottery business relies on luring consumers with false hopes. Although many people play the lottery because they have an inexplicable, human urge to gamble, there is more at work here than that. In this case, the Lottery is a metaphor for all sorts of false hopes and dreams: that we can buy happiness with money, that we can cheat time, and that we can avoid aging and death. In this case, the Lottery’s false promises are not just bad for consumers but also contribute to economic inequality and social distancing. The villagers in the story seem to recognize this, but they do not act on it. The end of the story is a twist, but the meaning behind it is clear. This is a tale of how the quest for the big jackpot undermines the small-town values that the lottery is supposed to champion. The moral of the story is that we cannot have both a big jackpot and a small-town community. We have to decide which one we really want.