In the modern era of state lotteries, it’s all about the money. The games themselves are fairly innocuous, but the real point is to lure people into spending their hard-earned cash on an illusion that they might win big – and not just any old prize, either, but a very large one, with lots of zeros attached. Lotteries owe their existence to the fact that people are deeply, irrationally, attracted to gambling. That’s not a surprise, as there’s something in our DNA that just wants to try its luck. It’s why we have casinos and racetracks, and there’s no doubt a reason that billboards beckoning “Mega Millions!” and “Powerball!” pique people’s interest.
The lottery’s modern incarnation began in the nineteen sixties, when growing awareness of all the cash to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. With population growth, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War wreaking havoc with state budgets, it was impossible for many states to maintain their existing social safety nets without raising taxes or cutting services. Lotteries, hailed by politicians as “budgetary miracles,” were the solution.
At first, they were wildly popular. After all, what could be more appealing than a chance to win a big jackpot for only a small fee? But it didn’t take long for the thrill of winning to wear off. People quickly grew bored with the repetitive nature of the games, and revenue started to decline. So lottery officials introduced a host of new games with ever-increasing prizes, but the problem is that the more money you put into the game, the lower your odds of winning.
This led to the infamous “twilight zone” effect whereby people would spend all their disposable income on tickets in the hope that their luck might change, even though they were essentially investing in their own financial demise. As this cycle continued, it became clear that the odds had to be continually improved in order to keep attracting new customers.
The story of Tessie, a middle-aged housewife in Jackson’s novel, illustrates this dynamic. On Lottery Day, everyone in the family draws a slip of paper from a box. If their name is on a slip with a black spot, they must draw again for another slip. And so on, and so forth.
In the end, Lottery is a story about human evil. Tessie’s behavior reveals her desire to take advantage of other people and her contempt for those who work hard. Her actions highlight the innate selfishness of the human condition and the dangers of compulsive gambling. And this is the real message of the lottery – that we are all evil in some way, shape or form. That’s a message worth spreading. Despite the low odds of winning, Americans still spend more than $80 billion on the lottery each year. It’s a huge sum of money that might be better spent helping those in need than trying to make the rich richer.