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Lottery Day in the 1940s


In a small, rural town in the 1940s, Lottery Day is drawing near. As part of this annual ritual, the heads of families draw a slip of paper with numbers written on it. One of the slips — the only one — has a black spot. If the family draws that one, they must repeat the process. The story suggests that these events have a moral meaning: they show how oppressive norms and traditions impose their own perverse logic on people and their behavior.

In modern times, the lottery has become a common method for raising money for state governments. It has also come to serve other purposes, including the relief of poverty and the financing of public works projects. The story in The New Yorker suggests that, like most things, it has its good points and bad ones.

While the casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long record in human history (Nero loved to hold lotteries, for example), the modern lottery is a relatively recent invention. It started in the fourteen-hundreds, when the Low Countries adopted it for various public purposes, including building towns and redistributing property taxes.

Some critics of the lottery argue that it is a “tax on the stupid.” Others, however, point to its popularity in states with burgeoning populations and weakening fiscal conditions. They note that lottery sales increase in times of economic stress and that advertising for the games often reaches neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.