What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game of chance in which winners are selected through a random drawing. Lotteries can be run by states or private organizations. They can raise money for a variety of purposes. Many people play the lottery each week in the United States and contribute billions of dollars annually to state coffers. Some of these funds are used for education, public services and welfare programs. The odds of winning are low, but the lure of winning big is a powerful force that makes many people want to take a shot.

The short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson takes place in a remote American village where traditions and customs are strong. Each family gets a set of lottery tickets, and on Lottery Day the head of each household draws a folded slip from a box that contains all the tickets except for one marked with a black spot. If the head of a household draws that slip, then that family must draw again, for another ticket with a black spot.

The whole exercise is a kind of social ritual that is meant to make it clear that there are no guarantees in life. But the exercise also reveals the ugly underbelly of human greed: the persistent hope that even the longest-shot prize will change things for the better. Lotteries rely on two messages to sell themselves: the first is that the experience of buying a ticket can be enjoyable, and the second is that playing the lottery is a good thing because it helps state revenue. But these two messages are flawed. They conceal the fact that the vast majority of players are lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite, and they obscure how much money is spent on playing the lottery each year.