The Hidden Costs of the Lottery


A lottery is a method of selecting individuals or groups for an opportunity that is available only to a limited number. The process is usually used in situations where resources are scarce. Examples include filling a vacancy in a sports team among equally competing players, placing children in kindergarten or school, or the allocation of units in a subsidized housing block. The process is based on chance, and the results are determined by picking a random number or name from a container.

The history of lotteries dates back centuries. The Old Testament instructs Moses to take a census of Israel’s people and divide their land by lot; Roman emperors gave away property and slaves as part of Saturnalian feasts; and the Continental Congress attempted to use a lottery to raise money for the Revolutionary War. In modern times, state lotteries are a common form of gambling and a popular source of public funding for everything from bridge repairs to civil defense.

Despite their controversial origins, lotteries have been enormously successful and are currently one of the most popular forms of gambling in America. The lottery is a popular and lucrative business for both the promoters of the games and the governments that run them. Its popularity can be explained by the psychological appeal of winning, as well as a deep-seated desire to be lucky.

But, as with any form of gambling, the lottery does come with costs, and it is important to understand those costs before deciding whether or not to participate in it. During the nineteen-sixties, growing awareness of the tremendous profits to be made in the gambling industry collided with an economic crisis that rendered states’ existing social safety net untenable. Balancing budgets became difficult without raising taxes or cutting services, and both options were deeply unpopular with voters.

Legalization advocates sought a new strategy and began to market the lottery as a way to fund government services that were popular and nonpartisan—most often education but sometimes elder care, parks, and aid for veterans. This new strategy made it easier to persuade voters that supporting the lottery was not a vote for gambling, but rather for something that every citizen needed.

While the villagers in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery behave with hostility and cruelty toward Tessie before, during, and after the lottery, there are many hidden symbols in the story that suggest other motives for their behavior. Some of these are obvious, such as the black box and the stones that the villagers use to draw their numbers, but others are less so. By examining the text and investigating some of these other possible motivations, students can better understand the social dynamics behind the story. For example, the villagers may be cruel because they think that they have the right to choose who wins the lottery, and they believe that the winner deserves their support. They may also be acting out of fear and envy, which is not uncommon when dealing with strangers.