Is the Lottery a Tax on Stupidity?


Lottery is a game of chance. It has seen many sleep paupers and wake up millionaires. It has seen people build their personal lives and transform to suit their new status in the society. It has also seen some destroy their life and walk away from it. All of these have been the consequence of winning a lottery. But is this really what an empathetic society should be about?

Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery is an indictment of humanity’s evil nature. It takes place in a remote village with a culture of honoring the old and ignoring the new. The villagers are all involved in the lottery, though they claim it’s not about money. The villagers “greeted each other, exchanged bits of gossip, and handled each other without a flinch of sympathy” (Shirley 281). Jackson portrays this event to show how hypocritical the villagers are.

The earliest European lotteries were simple affairs: During Roman Saturnalian revelries, rich guests would give each other tickets with prizes that were often articles of unequal value. Later, lotteries were used to collect funds for public works. By the fourteenth century, they were popular in the Low Countries and favored by Queen Elizabeth I as a means of raising funds for the military.

In the nineteen-sixties, however, rising awareness of the enormous profits to be made in the gambling industry collided with a crisis in state funding. Faced with rising costs, expanding population, and the growing cost of the Vietnam War, state governments were unable to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

The result was that the average family’s income remained flat or even declined; jobs disappeared, pensions were cut back, and health-care expenses increased. In other words, the national promise that hard work and education would ensure that children were better off than their parents ceased to be true. And with it, the obsession with improbable wealth and the lottery began to grow in popularity.

Cohen argues that the contemporary lottery is not a tax on stupidity, as some have charged; in fact, it is an economic response to waning prosperity. As incomes fall, unemployment rises, poverty rates increase, and more people have access to lottery advertising, ticket sales tend to increase. Moreover, the regressive structure of lotteries is exacerbated by the fact that tickets are sold in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino. In such a climate, winning the lottery seems like the only option. This, in turn, makes the lottery an increasingly attractive option for people who are already spending large portions of their incomes on it. To make matters worse, the lottery’s regressive structure undermines its public-policy goals by encouraging poor and working-class families to spend even more of their income on it. This is a vicious cycle that needs to be stopped. Fortunately, there are ways to stop it. The answer lies in addressing the root causes of inequality. This can be done through education and by changing the way we think about money.