What is a Lottery?
A lottery is a process of awarding prizes, such as money or goods, by drawing numbers from a large group of participants. A popular form of lottery is one that dish out cash prizes to paying participants if enough of their numbers are randomly drawn and match the winning number. The term “lottery” can also refer to a contest in which individuals compete against each other for limited resources, such as kindergarten admission at a reputable school or units in a subsidized housing block. There are a number of ways that lotteries can be run, including by governments or private companies. The prize money may be split between the winners and losers or distributed equally among all players. A lottery can be used to allocate anything from kindergarten seats to medical research grants.
Lotteries have long been a common form of public funding in Europe and the United States. They are especially appealing because they avoid the need for explicit taxation. In the seventeenth century, for example, a large number of American colleges were partially financed through lotteries. And the Continental Congress attempted to use a lottery to raise funds for the Revolutionary War. Privately organized lotteries were even more prevalent in the early republic.
But the lottery’s popularity grew in tandem with a decline in financial security for most Americans. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, income gaps widened, health-care costs rose, job security eroded, and the longstanding national promise that hard work would make children better off than their parents ceased to be true. The lottery, with its promise of instant riches, offered an alluring alternative to a declining standard of living.
This is the context in which Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” takes place. In an unnamed small town, the villagers gather on June 27 to conduct their annual lottery. They do so because, according to an old proverb, if “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”
The story reveals the way that the lottery has become a ritual of violence and murder that exists only for its own sake. It is a fetishized form of gambling that evokes fantasies of wealth so great that it can buy you happiness, but in reality it does not guarantee it. In fact, for most people who win the lottery, life only gets worse after they do.
By the time the story was published, advocates of legalized lotteries had stopped trying to sell them as a silver bullet that could solve all a state’s budget problems. They began arguing that a lottery would finance only a single line item, almost always education but sometimes other services such as elder care or parks, and they tried to sell it by emphasizing its nonpartisanship. This more narrow approach made it easier for voters to make up their minds. But it still does not fully explain the attraction of lotteries. A simple answer is that people plain old like to gamble. They feel a strong desire to control their own fate, and the promise of big jackpots makes it all too easy to give in.