What is the Lottery?


Lottery is a form of gambling in which people have a chance to win prizes, normally money, by drawing lots. Lotteries are organized by governments and private organizations, with some amount of the prize pool going toward the costs of organizing and promoting the lottery. The remainder is awarded to the winners. The most common type of lottery involves buying a ticket for a small set of numbers or symbols, with drawings held to determine the winner. People also have a chance to win prizes by betting on the outcome of certain events, such as football games or horse races, through raffles.

The first recorded lotteries to offer tickets for sale and prizes in the form of money were held in the 15th century, when towns in Europe used them to raise funds for town fortifications, poor relief, and other purposes. In colonial America, lotteries played a similar role in raising money for public projects and services. Some of the early colonies even had public lotteries for lands and other privileges. These lotteries were often promoted as a painless form of taxation, compared to the higher taxes imposed on the wealthy by state governments.

When Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” was published in 1948, it generated more letters to The New Yorker than any other work of fiction the magazine had ever printed. Readers were furious, disgusted, occasionally curious, and almost uniformly bewildered. The story reveals how much tradition can trump reason, even in the most remote of societies.

The story takes place in a remote American village where customs and traditions dominate the local population. Lottery arrangements start the night before the event, when Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves draw up a list of families in the village, each family getting one ticket for the lottery. The tickets are blank, with the exception of one that is marked with a black dot. The men of the village then take turns picking up pieces of paper from a bowl. The person whose piece of paper is selected then has to choose a victim among the community members for collectively stoning.

People from different social and economic backgrounds play the lottery. The highest number of players is in the 21st through 60th percentile of income distribution, those with enough discretionary money to spend on the tickets. But most of those who play the lottery are not in that group, and are instead concentrated in the bottom quintile. These are people who may have a couple dollars to spare on lottery tickets, but not the opportunity to make the kinds of investments that might allow them to rise out of poverty.

Some people play the lottery to escape from their problems, but many others are drawn to it by a belief that winning the lottery is their only chance to get ahead in life. The fact that they may be irrational gamblers doesn’t stop them. Billboards announcing the Mega Millions and Powerball jackpots appeal to that inexplicable human desire to try our luck.