In the small New England town depicted in Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” the villagers are gathered for an annual tradition on June 26, 1948. Children pile stones on Tessie, a woman who has been marked for death. The townspeople chant an old proverb: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”
Lotteries have long been a popular source of income and are often organized so that a percentage of the proceeds go to charity. But there is a darker side to lottery playing, and it has nothing to do with winning.
For one thing, the odds of winning a lottery are very low, and even the rare occasion when a person does win is not a free ride to instant wealth. It is important to remember that the winner of a lottery must pay taxes, and most people will go bankrupt within a few years of winning. In addition, the money won by a lottery is not as’sinful’ as gambling or alcohol, so it is easier for state governments to justify using it as a way to raise revenue than are tobacco and other vice taxes.
In the post-World War II era, with states facing budget crises and an increasingly anti-tax electorate, many politicians began advocating state-run lotteries as a way to expand government services without increasing taxes. This logic ignored the fact that lotteries were a form of hidden tax, and it also ignored the ethical objections to gambling rooted in centuries of Biblical allusions and Roman history.