What is the Lottery?


Lottery is a game of chance with a prize that is usually money, but which can also be goods or services. Modern lotteries are typically run by state-regulated private promoters, who take a cut of the proceeds from ticket sales and pay for advertising, prizes, and other costs. Most modern lotteries involve a fixed number of prizes, predetermined by the lottery’s organizers, and tickets can be purchased either online or in person. Some people may purchase multiple entries, which increases their chances of winning, but most lottery participants are aware that they will not win.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, written in 1948, is an examination of the role tradition plays in a society that has lost touch with its values. The story begins with the annual lottery in a small unnamed town, where the residents gather in the public square to draw their slips. As they wait for the drawing, there is banter among the townspeople, with rumors that other villages have stopped holding the lottery. An elderly man quotes a traditional rhyme, “Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon,” which has become something of a town motto. Children are gathered around to watch the judging, with the youngest children helping to gather stones for throwing at Tessie, the winner of the lottery.

In the early days of American democracy, public lotteries were common as a means of collecting taxes and paying for a variety of government services. They were especially popular in colonial America, where many of the nation’s earliest colleges were founded with the help of such lotteries. Lotteries became a major source of income for the Continental Congress, and in later years they were used to raise funds for public works projects and military conscription.

Today, a lot of the money raised by lotteries goes toward a single line item in a state’s budget—education, for example. The lottery industry, as a result, has moved away from its original pitch that it would float most of a state’s budget and instead focuses on specific benefits. The result is a more subtle message that tends to obscure the regressive nature of lottery revenue and encourages people to play more frequently.

The wealthy do play the lottery, of course—and have a much greater likelihood of winning—but they buy fewer tickets than the poor do, and their purchases represent a smaller fraction of their overall incomes. The average household with a million dollars per year spends only one percent of its income on lottery tickets, while households earning less than thirty thousand dollars per year spend thirteen percent. This skews the average prize size toward lower-income households and makes it easier to justify the cost of the lottery as a way to fund a specific service that will benefit those most in need. But in reality, a lottery will always be a gamble, no matter how much of the jackpot is awarded to the winner. Lottery commissions are savvy enough to recognize this, and that’s why they’re shifting the discussion in their favor.