The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn for a prize, often a sum of money. The game has roots in ancient times, with the Old Testament instructing Moses to take a census of Israel and divide land by lot, and Nero and other Roman emperors giving away property and slaves by lot as part of Saturnalia festivities. In Europe, public lotteries became common in the 15th century, raising funds for town fortifications and helping the poor. But while the odds of winning are long, many people play anyway. Lotteries are popular with the general public, but they also develop extensive specific constituencies—convenience store operators (who have contracts to sell tickets); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are reported); teachers in states where a portion of the proceeds is earmarked for education; and, of course, state legislators, who are quick to adopt the habit.
The story begins with Tessie, a middle-aged housewife who is late for her family’s Lottery Day celebration because she has been doing the breakfast dishes. She’s rushed and nervous as she walks up to the table where the head of household draws a slip of paper from a box. One of the slips is marked with a black spot; if the head of household pulls it, the rest of the family must draw again, for another slip with the black mark.
If the head of household does not draw it, the family can go home and relax. But if they do, the family must begin to make plans for what it will do with the money. In this way the story demonstrates the way that the lottery can transform the lives of those who play it, making them more selfish and materialistic, even as they hope to change their fortunes for the better.
During the immediate post-World War II period, when many states began to expand their array of services, politicians looked at lotteries as an easy way to raise revenue without heavy taxes on the middle class and working class. Lottery advocates dismissed long-standing ethical objections to gambling, arguing that if people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well collect the revenues.
The result has been that, with few exceptions, state lotteries have exhibited remarkably similar patterns of evolution. Lotteries are established with a legislative monopoly; a state agency or public corporation is put in charge of running the operation; it starts operations with a small number of relatively simple games, and, under pressure for more revenues, quickly expands its size and complexity. It’s a classic example of policymaking by piecemeal and incremental steps, with the overall effect that the welfare of the general public is taken into consideration only intermittently, if at all. As a result, few, if any, state officials have what one might call a coherent “gambling policy” or a “lottery policy.” Instead they inherit policies and a dependence on lottery revenues that they can do little to modify.