The lottery is a ubiquitous part of American life. Americans spend upward of $100 billion on tickets each year, making it the most popular form of gambling in the country. Often, people see lotteries as an important source of revenue for their state governments, and they argue that the money spent on tickets is a good use of public funds. However, it’s worth considering just how significant that revenue is in broader state budgets and what the costs of the lottery are to society.
Cohen argues that the modern incarnation of the lottery came into being in the mid-twentieth century, when growing awareness of the money to be made by the gambling industry collided with a crisis in state finance. Many states, especially those that provided a generous social safety net, found it impossible to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—and both options were incredibly unpopular with voters. With the country in the midst of an anti-tax revolt, state lottery commissions were able to promote their products as a painless alternative to higher taxes.
Lotteries became popular in England, where they were widely used to raise money for a variety of public usages. They even helped to fund the European settlement of America, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. In the American colonies, they were also a common way of financing everything from public buildings to wars. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were all financed by lotteries, as was the Continental Congress’ attempt to pay for the Revolutionary War.
During the lottery, a head of household draws a piece of paper from a box, and if it is marked with a black spot, everyone in that family has to draw again for another slip. The whole process usually takes less than two hours, and people can get back home in time for supper at noon. Tessie, the middle-aged housewife in Jackson’s story, is late for the lottery because she had to wash her breakfast dishes.
Tessie is one of the few women in the village to be participating in the lottery, and she seems to take the event quite seriously. She doesn’t object to having to play the lottery, but she does object to having to clean the kitchen. She tries to make her entry as early as possible, but she’s held up in the queue by other villagers who have already arrived with their ticket.
Tessie’s participation in the lottery seems to signal her status as a respectable member of the community. She’s a middle-class woman who goes to church, works full time, and owns her own house. She’s not a poor person, and she doesn’t seem to know anyone who is poor. This gives her a sense of decency that other villagers lack. She also believes that her children will eventually grow up to be responsible citizens, just like themselves. For these reasons, she believes the lottery is a good thing. Nevertheless, she still thinks that the prizes in the lottery are a little too extravagant.