What Is a Lottery?


A lottery is a procedure for allocating something, usually money or prizes, among a group of people by chance. In modern times, the term is often used to refer to a form of gambling in which participants purchase chances on the outcome of an event or set of events. But the term may also be used to describe other arrangements that involve random chance, such as the selection of jurors from lists of registered voters or the distribution of military conscripts. Lotteries are a popular means of raising money for many different purposes. They are also widely seen as a painless way for governments to collect taxes. But there is little evidence that their profits support state programs, and critics point out that they are often accompanied by false messages that promote the notion that people should buy tickets because it’s their civic duty to support the lottery’s “good” causes.

The story in this issue, “The Lottery,” is a cautionary tale about the potential for human evil in the face of seemingly harmless behavior. It is told in the first person by a middle-aged housewife who is not thrilled about her odds of winning the big prize. She has come late to the family celebration of Lottery Day, because she had to do her breakfast dishes and did not want to leave them in the sink. The head of each family draws a folded slip of paper from a box. One of the slips is marked with a black spot. If that number is drawn, the family must draw again for a new slip. This continues until a winner is selected.

Historically, lotteries have been common for allocating anything from slaves to property to school admissions. In the seventeenth century, for example, a statewide lottery was held in the Netherlands to raise funds for a variety of municipal uses. In the United States, Cohen argues, the popularity of state-sponsored lotteries increased in the nineteen-sixties as growing awareness of the huge profits to be made in the gambling industry collided with a crisis in state funding. It became increasingly difficult to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting services, and both options were unpopular with voters.

Lotteries are popular with the general public because they can be played for a small amount of money and the prizes offered are substantial. In addition, the winners are typically recognized by the state and rewarded with cash or other valuable items. However, the truth is that the odds of winning are very low. In fact, a recent study by an economics professor found that the average ticket in the lottery has a 1 in 50 chance of winning a prize. The odds are even lower for multiple-ticket holders, as the more tickets that are purchased, the more likely a particular ticket will be chosen. This study supports the claim that there are significant flaws in the way that most people perceive lotteries.

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