The Lottery and Its Role in State Budgets


A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are allocated by chance. Modern lotteries are mainly government-run games of chance, and involve payment for a ticket that gives the purchaser a chance to win a prize. Prizes can be anything from a cash sum to goods, services, or even real estate. Government-run lotteries are often criticized as contributing to illegal gambling and for encouraging addictive behaviors, while also being perceived as a major regressive tax on lower income groups. There is an element of truth to these criticisms, but the reality is that lottery revenues have proven to be a vital source of state funds.

Almost every state runs a lottery today. The way most of them operate is similar: the state legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes an agency or public corporation to run it (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of the profits); begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands its scope of offerings. The result is a lottery industry that is both complex and addictive, and a state that faces an inherent conflict between its desire to increase revenues and its duty to protect the welfare of its citizens.

In the short story “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson demonstrates that human sinfulness is hardly limited to rape or murder. The story takes place in a rural American village, where the customs and traditions of the community are paramount. It is a world in which the heads of families gather for the town lottery, and the people chat and gossip as they wait for the results.

As with many of Jackson’s short stories, the events depicted in the story reveal both the hypocrisy and evil nature of humankind. The lottery is a means for the villagers to obtain a cash prize, but in order to participate they have to buy tickets. This is a form of coercion, and a violation of the right to liberty.

While the story’s central theme is about human evil, it also offers an important lesson about the role of state governments and their budgetary policies. Cohen points out that the modern lottery industry began in the immediate postwar period when states were facing a crisis in their social safety nets because of inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War.

Lotteries were a popular alternative to raising taxes, which had become an irritant for many middle- and working-class voters. The idea was that, if the lottery could be shown to provide substantial new revenues, it would allow states to eliminate taxes altogether. This proved to be a dangerous delusion, as the late-twentieth century tax revolt showed. Even a state as conservative as New Hampshire, which approved the first modern lottery in 1964, eventually succumbed to the specter of higher property taxes and federal deficits. This is the lesson that all states should heed as they consider the future of their own lotteries.