The Allure of the Lottery
In the simplest terms, lottery is a game in which people pay money for a chance to win a prize. The prizes range from units in a subsidized housing block to kindergarten placements at a reputable public school. Many people play the lottery each week, contributing billions of dollars to the economy. Yet, despite the fact that the odds of winning are extremely low, the allure of the lottery remains strong. What is it about this form of gambling that appeals to so many?
Lotteries originated in the fourteen-hundreds and became popular in the Low Countries. By the seventeenth century they had reached England, where they were used as a means of collecting “voluntary taxes” to fund town fortifications, township improvements, and charity for the poor. Lotteries were also used to settle land disputes and provide tax exemptions. They were even employed to help finance the European settlement of America despite strict Protestant prohibitions on gambling.
The narrator of DiYanni’s story describes the lottery as “just another civic activity, like square dances and a teenage club and a Halloween program.” This description reveals that the villagers consider the lottery part of their community fabric just as much as doomsday prep, church services, and the annual chicken roast.
Those who play the lottery do not see it as a form of gambling, but as a way to buy a better life by improving their chances of being the one who wins the big prize. They are willing to hazard a trifling amount because they believe that the benefit of winning outweighs the disutility of losing.
Lotteries have been around for centuries, but they gained traction in the United States at the end of the Revolutionary War. The Continental Congress voted to use lotteries to raise funds for the Colonial Army, and Alexander Hamilton understood that the essence of a lottery was that “Every man will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the chance of considerable gain.”
The wealthy do play the lottery, but they make fewer purchases and spend a smaller percentage of their income on tickets than do those with lower incomes. As a result, they tend to have a lower chance of winning, and their total utility may be less than that of a poor person who plays the lottery for the same reasons. The fact that the rich do not suffer from a higher average cost of entry into the lottery does not detract from its regressiveness. In fact, it underscores how the allure of the lottery has a racial dimension. As the story of Denmark Vesey demonstrates, lotteries are a powerful tool for raising white privilege.