The Lottery is Not Just a Game


In the United States, lotteries are a popular way to raise money for a variety of purposes. Some governments outlaw them, while others endorse them to a limited extent and organize state or national lotteries. In a lottery, numbers are drawn at random to determine winners of prizes. These prizes may be anything from cash to goods. Some government-endorsed lotteries raise large amounts of money, while others have a smaller impact. In any case, there are ethical concerns with lotteries.

The story begins with the heads of families in a small rural town gathering for their annual lottery. Old Man Warner, who seems to be something like the village patriarch, doesn’t approve of the lottery, but he feels powerless to change things. He cites an old traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon.”

Mr. Summers, a man who represents authority in the story, brings out a black box and stirs up the papers inside of it. Then he lets the family heads draw their tickets, and as they do so, there is banter amongst the people and gossip about other communities that have stopped holding The Lottery. The readers see that it is not simply a matter of winning the lottery; it is an important part of the community.

Lotteries are often presented as a way for people to try their luck at making a fortune, and they can be very tempting. However, coveting money and the things that money can buy is a sin (Exodus 20:17; 1 Timothy 6:10), and lottery players often fall prey to this temptation. In addition, many people who play the lottery find themselves in financial trouble as a result of their gambling addictions.

Although some defenders of the lottery argue that it is a tax on the stupid, this argument misses the point: Lottery spending is responsive to economic fluctuations. In fact, as historian Jonathan Cohen has observed, when incomes fall, unemployment rises, or poverty rates increase, lottery sales boom, while those of people who already gamble are likely to decline.

In the late twentieth century, when state budgets began to shrink and voters rebelled against taxes, politicians looked to lotteries as a source of “painless” revenue. Lottery advocates argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well reap the profits.

As a result, the majority of American states now run lotteries. But as the nation’s economy recovers, and state budgets grow again, lottery sales are likely to fall. Then the states will have to raise taxes or cut services, and both of those options are unpopular with voters. If the lottery’s defenders hope to revive its popularity, they need to rethink their message. They need to stop focusing on a ludicrous idea that people spend so much money on the ticket because they don’t understand how unlikely it is for them to win, and start promoting an ethical message. If they do, the resurgence of the lottery might be short-lived.