The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery


A lottery is a game where winners are selected through a random drawing. It can be a financial lottery where participants pay a small sum for the chance to win a big jackpot or a social lottery where people participate in order to get something they want or need, such as units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a prestigious public school. Some lotteries are criticized as addictive forms of gambling and others are praised as a tool for raising funds to help people in need.

During the immediate post-World War II period, state governments turned to lotteries for help. They were looking for ways to fund their ever-expanding array of services without enraging an increasingly anti-tax electorate. Lotteries were marketed not as onerous taxes but as a painless way to raise money, and they proved incredibly popular.

Rich people do play the lottery, of course; a few have won enormous jackpots (such as the quarter billion dollar Powerball in 2017). But, on the whole, the wealthy buy far fewer tickets than the poor. And, because their purchases represent a much smaller percentage of their income, the marginal utility of each ticket is lower.

That is the ugly underbelly of this lottery, and it can be hard to see from the outside. The narrator of the poem, for example, writes that playing the lottery is like “square dancing or teenage clubs or the Halloween program.” To some, it may seem a little more sophisticated than a square dance but not all that different from sitting around in a bar and hearing stories about planting and rain, tractors and taxes.