What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game where participants pay a small amount to participate in the drawing of prizes. These prizes may be cash, goods or services. In the United States, state lotteries often offer a wide variety of games. Some involve picking the correct numbers or symbols from a list, and others require players to select a group of numbers or have machines randomly spit out numbers. In the latter case, prizes are awarded to players whose selections match those of the machine. In addition to state-sponsored lotteries, private companies conduct many private lotteries.

In addition to the monetary prize, lottery games are often used to determine other matters, such as who will receive units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school. Some of the founding fathers were big believers in lotteries; Benjamin Franklin ran one to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British during the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson ran a lottery to help alleviate his crushing debts.

When Shirley Jackson’s chilling short story “The Lottery” was published in The New Yorker in 1948, it drew more letters than any other work the magazine had ever printed. Readers were furious, disgusted, occasionally curious and almost uniformly bewildered. The reason for such an extreme response can probably be attributed to the fact that people at that time were still grappling with the horrors of World War II and still reeling from its aftermath.

The plot of the story revolves around a community in which members are required to participate in a lottery that will result in one member’s death. While the story is not explicitly anti-lottery, Jackson’s description of the setting and the actions of the characters reflects a general condemnation of human evil and hypocrisy. She portrays them as greedy, mean, and corrupt. The villagers also display an incredible lack of understanding and compassion for the woman they will stone to death.

It is not a stretch to see that lottery play reveals some deep-seated flaws in our society. The first is that it reveals a fundamental human need to gamble. This need is likely based on the desire to acquire more than what one has, which can be achieved through a combination of monetary and non-monetary gains. The second is that it leads to compulsive gambling and can be harmful to the health of individuals.

Another problem with lotteries is that they tend to create a vicious cycle in which revenues expand rapidly when first introduced, then level off and eventually decline. This inevitably leads to the introduction of new games in an attempt to maintain or increase revenue. In many cases, this approach is unsuccessful. Ultimately, most states have a lottery policy that is piecemeal and incremental in nature and thus has little or no overall direction. As a result, it is difficult for lottery officials to take the general welfare into consideration when making decisions about the game.