The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which people pay small sums of money for the chance to win large amounts of money. It is a popular way to raise funds, but it has some inherent risks. The odds of winning are very low, but there is always a sliver of hope that someone will get lucky. This hope can lead to a lot of debt and other problems.

The story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson is a chilling depiction of how the lottery, when taken to extremes, can have dangerous consequences. The central character, Tessie Hutchinson, is a middle-aged housewife who participates in her local lottery. Each year, on Lottery Day, she and every other member of her community draw a piece of paper from a box with a black mark on it. If the head of the household draws that piece, he or she must kill one person in the village.

This elaborate ritual takes place in a village that is not especially rich or poor, and it demonstrates the extremes to which human beings can be driven in pursuit of unimaginable wealth. The lottery becomes an instrument of persecuting innocents who have done nothing wrong, and it can be used to justify a wide variety of activities. As the lottery has evolved, its popularity and the size of the prizes have risen. The prizes are often predetermined, and the amount of money that is available to be won is usually larger than the total cost of the lottery, which includes the profits for the promoter and other costs.

In the nineteenth century, state lotteries were widely used to collect taxes and to fund public works projects. In addition, they helped to finance such projects as the building of Harvard and Yale. George Washington even sponsored a lottery to raise funds for the Continental Congress during the American Revolution.

Until recently, however, most state lotteries have operated much like traditional raffles, with the public buying tickets for a drawing that is scheduled to take place weeks or months in the future. But innovations in the 1970s, including scratch-off tickets with lower prize amounts and more frequent drawings, have changed this pattern. Revenues jumped dramatically after the introduction of these games, but they then leveled off and began to decline. This prompted lottery commissions to introduce new games and to increase promotional spending.

The decline in revenues coincided with a rise in income inequality and a decrease in the standard of living for many working people. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, many Americans began to feel that the national promise that hard work and education would render them wealthier than their parents ceased to be true for them. As a result, they have become obsessed with winning the lottery. Their obsession, he argues, is a symptom of a crisis in financial security that is taking its toll on the country. It is a crisis that has been reinforced by a collapse in retirement savings, soaring health-care costs, increasing unemployment, and declining job security.