During the fourteenth century, people in rural Europe used lotteries to build towns and fund charity. Later, it became popular in England to settle disputes and build roads. By the nineteen-seventies, it was the most popular form of gambling in America. But for most of its history, the lottery was more than a gamble; it was a way to win unimaginable wealth. In the late thirties, The New Yorker published a story by the British writer Shirley Jackson called “Lottery.” The title of this short story suggests what is so disturbing about it: that people would be willing to risk their lives for a chance to win a prize that has no value in their world.
The story is set in a small village. There is banter and gossip among the residents. A man quotes a traditional rhyme, “Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon.” Mrs. Delacroix, who is something of a town matriarch, doesn’t approve of the lottery, but she reluctantly agrees to attend.
She draws her number, and the men cheer. They want to see what she will do with her money. But Mrs. Delacroix’s actions show that she is not to be fucked with. She will not be intimidated by her enemies. She is determined to win, and her action of picking a large stone expresses this determination. She does not want to give up on her dreams.
In the United States, there are about a hundred lotteries each year. They generate more than $100 billion in revenue for state governments, and they are the most popular form of gambling in the country. But this massive revenue stream comes with a cost. Its supporters argue that because lottery profits are so large, they can help to fund a wide range of services that state government cannot otherwise afford without raising taxes or cutting services. But Cohen argues that this argument misses the point.
For politicians facing budget crunch, the lottery seemed like a miracle. It allowed them to maintain existing services without raising taxes and avoid punishing voters. Lottery advocates also dismissed long-held ethical objections to gambling, arguing that people would gamble anyway, and the state might as well make some money off of them.
In the past, defenders of the lottery have sometimes cast it as a tax on the stupid, suggesting that players don’t understand how unlikely it is to win or that they enjoy playing the game anyway. But this message obscures the regressive nature of the lottery and misses how deeply entwined it is with economic fluctuations. When unemployment and poverty rates rise, lottery sales increase. Lottery advertising is also heavily disproportionately pushed into neighborhoods that are poor and black or Latino. In other words, the lottery isn’t just a bad thing; it is a tool of class warfare. It enables poor people to believe that they have a shot at winning the big prize, even if that prize is improbable. And, as Cohen demonstrates, it may also enable them to justify spending more on drugs and other forms of reckless behavior.