The lottery is big business in the United States, with Americans spending billions annually on tickets. Yet its ubiquity masks its complicated social and economic roots, which extend far beyond the simple act of picking numbers. Lottery has long been a popular form of gambling, but it’s also a way to raise money for public projects and other needs. States promote the lottery as a source of painless revenue, and it’s hard to deny that public services would be much worse without it. But just how valuable that tax-free money is, and how much people sacrifice for it, deserves some scrutiny.
The first modern lotteries may have originated in the 15th century, when towns in the Low Countries held them to raise funds for town fortifications and charity. A document dated 9 May 1445 at L’Ecluse mentions a lottery for a sum of 1737 florins, which was worth about US$170,000 in 2014. The practice quickly spread to England and by the 1670s, it was commonplace, even though Puritans had declared gambling a sin. By the 1750s, lotteries helped finance colonial expansion and even the Revolutionary War itself.
By the early 20th century, state-sponsored lotteries became increasingly common, and grew to be a major source of government revenue. But they remain a controversial form of gambling because they require players to voluntarily give up their own money in order to win a prize, usually a relatively small amount of cash. Despite their rocky and sometimes contradictory history, lottery games persist in the United States because they have proven to be remarkably effective at generating large amounts of revenue, while enjoying broad and stable public support.
Historically, state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, with the public purchasing tickets for a drawing at some future date. But innovations in the 1970s led to a dramatic transformation of the industry. The lottery began to offer “instant” games that allowed people to buy a ticket and instantly receive the results of the draw. These games were less expensive to produce and offered much higher prizes, but with lower odds of winning than the traditional drawings.
To maintain public interest in the lottery, it became necessary to increase the jackpots to staggeringly large amounts. These super-sized prizes not only boosted sales but also attracted huge amounts of free publicity on news websites and television newscasts. They also created a “rebound effect” where the prize money was more likely to carry over to the next drawing, driving further sales.
In the end, Shirley Jackson’s story is a cautionary tale of how easily ordinary, everyday citizens can become persecuted by their neighbors for no real reason other than being picked to participate in a ritual that is seen as unjust or unlucky. It’s a reminder that evil can lurk in even the most peaceful-looking places. And it’s a warning that if people have the opportunity to change something they don’t like, they should take it.