Lottery is a game where numbers are drawn to determine a winner. The winner gets a prize, usually a cash amount. It is a popular way to raise money for things like public works projects. It has roots in the ancient world, including the Roman Empire (Nero was a big fan of them) and the Bible, where lots were used to give away land, slaves, and other goods. It is not without its critics, though, and many Christian people view playing the lottery as a form of gambling that is statistically futile. Lottery is also a bad idea because it teaches people that wealth can be obtained by luck, rather than through hard work: “Lazy hands make for poverty” (Proverbs 10:4). Christians should instead seek to gain wealth through honest labor and trust in God.
Lotteries were a common tool for raising funds in the early American colonies, and they remained popular with the general population after the Revolution, despite strong Protestant prohibitions against gambling. But they were often tangled up in the slave trade, and the morals of lottery players were all over the map–Thomas Jefferson thought they were fine as long as people were not allowed to gamble with their children; Alexander Hamilton understood that lotteries were the ultimate “get-rich-quick” scheme.
Today’s lottery games are based on a betting game that originated in seventeenth-century Genoa, and people pay a fee to buy tickets that have various combinations of numbers written on them. These numbers are then sorted by machines and the winners announced. The value of the prizes is determined by the total number of tickets sold, minus promotional costs, profits for the promoters, and taxes or other revenues. In the most common forms of lottery, a single, large prize is offered along with a range of smaller prizes.
The village of Summers in Shirley Jackson’s short story exemplifies the social stratification that characterizes modern capitalist societies, and this theme is especially clear in the lottery ritual that takes place in the town. The characters are portrayed as self-serving, hypocritical, and cruel. Summers, for example, is the leader of the lottery game and treats the participants with a sneering contempt.
In the immediate post-World War II period, lottery advocates were able to sell their cause by telling voters that it would help float an entire state budget. But in the 1960s, when inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War hit states hard, this arrangement came to a grinding halt. Suddenly, it became very difficult to balance a state’s budget without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were politically impossible. So the lottery industry changed tactics, and it started to argue that it could pick up a line item or two of a state’s budget. This was a more convincing pitch, and it made the case that a vote for the lottery wasn’t really a vote for gambling but for a specific government service. Usually it was education, but sometimes it was elder care or public parks or aid for veterans.