What is a Lottery?


Lottery is the procedure for allocating something — usually money or prizes, but sometimes other things – among a class of people by chance. It may be done by drawing lots, or by other means of random choice (casting of stones, shuffleboard, ping-pong balls). It is often used as a way to distribute something that is otherwise unavailable, such as units in a subsidized housing complex or kindergarten placements. It is also a popular form of gambling, in which players purchase chances to win a prize that depends on chance.

The earliest recorded instances of lottery-like activities are found in the Chinese Han dynasty, from 205 to 187 BC. From there, it spread to Europe, where it was employed as a sort of party game during the Roman Saturnalias and in the early American colonies. It became a major part of raising funds for public projects, such as the building of the British Museum and the construction of the Massachusetts State House, and was widely praised by its defenders as a painless alternative to taxes.

When a state conducts a lottery, it is supposed to help the general welfare by providing a new source of revenue that does not burden the poor or middle class. This is a big part of the argument made in favor of legalizing sports betting and other forms of state gambling: that it helps everyone, not just those who buy tickets. However, that isn’t really the case. When lottery winnings are put into context of overall state revenue, they prove to be a very small percentage. And the people who actually benefit from those winnings – the top 20 percent or so – are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite.

Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery is about a rural village that celebrates an annual lottery. The head of every family draws a slip of paper from a box, all of which are blank except one, marked with a black spot. The winner is destined to die. There is banter about the event, and an old man quotes a traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon.”

The story is set in the 1940s when there were still isolated rural pockets of America where the traditions of the past were highly valued. It is an unsettling tale about the power of tradition and customs to hide the ugly underbelly of human behavior. It is also a powerful illustration of how people are willing to overlook the truth in order to maintain their sense of morality. It also makes us question whether it is really a good idea to organize lotteries as a means of raising state revenue.