The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery

Lottery is an activity in which people purchase tickets for a chance to win a prize, such as a cash sum. It is a form of gambling and has the potential to have serious negative effects on an individual’s life, particularly those who are heavily addicted to the game. It is also an incredibly popular activity, and the amount of money given away through lottery games can be staggering. The history of lottery dates back to ancient times, and there are many different types of lotteries. Throughout history, lottery participants have been eager to wager their hard-earned incomes in the hope of becoming rich.

The word “lottery” comes from the Dutch noun lot meaning fate. It was used in the 17th century to raise funds for a range of public purposes, including roads, canals, churches, schools, and libraries. It was widely used in colonial America, despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling. In fact, one of the colonies even held a lottery to support the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

In the short story “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, the lottery takes place in an unnamed small town. It is a common annual event, and the villagers are eager to participate. They gather at the village hall on June 27 to watch as Old Man Warner draws lots for the villagers’ prizes. The children crowd around the box, and some even snatch the slips when they are dropped.

The winner is then announced, and the crowd cheers. It is a surprisingly exciting moment, and the entire town feels good about itself. But there is an ugly underbelly to the lottery, and Jackson reveals this in a very disturbing manner. The lottery reveals that the villagers are not the virtuous folk they appear to be. The whole thing is an exercise in hypocrisy, and it is very clear that the villagers are not doing this for their own good.

While the casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long record in human history (including several instances in the Bible), the modern lottery has more recently been introduced. Its modern incarnation started, Cohen argues, in the immediate post-World War II period when growing awareness of all the money that could be made through gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. Under the weight of a swelling population, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War, it became impossible for states to expand their social safety nets without dramatically raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were extremely unpopular with voters.

The establishment of a lottery allowed for a painless increase in state spending, and it quickly became very popular. But the industry’s rapid evolution often overtakes policy decisions that may have been made during the initial establishment of a lottery. The result is that today, few if any states have coherent gambling or lottery policies. Instead, the lottery is a classic example of public policy making that is piecemeal and incremental, with little or no overall oversight.

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