A lottery is a game in which people buy tickets for a chance to win some prize money, usually in the form of cash or goods. The prizes are usually set at random, though some lotteries have predetermined prizes and profits for the promoter. There are also state-run lotteries, which pay for public services and other government activities. Lottery can also refer to a game in which people choose numbers at random, such as those used in picking students for schools. The term is often used in a pejorative sense to describe gambling, but the lottery is also a legitimate form of government funding for many projects.
In early America, where the colonists were notoriously tax averse, lotteries played a major role in financing both private and public projects. They funded everything from canals to bridges, roads to churches, and even universities. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were all financed in this way, and the Continental Congress used a lottery to raise funds for the Revolutionary War. The American Lottery was so popular, in fact, that it is estimated that more than 200 were sanctioned between 1744 and 1776.
Lotteries were used in Europe at least as far back as the fifteenth century, with records from towns in the Low Countries suggesting that they raised money for town fortifications and charity. Then came England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first national lottery in 1567 to fund “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realme.” Tickets cost ten shillings, which was quite a sum for those times, and were often used as a get-out-of-jail-free card: the only crime that could result in a forfeiture of a ticket was piracy or murder.
Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” takes place in a small village where traditions and customs dominate. It depicts a group of people who are gathered to play the lottery. One of the participants, Mr. Summers, is the village lottery director. He and his assistant, Mr. Graves, plan a set of tickets for each family in the village. Each ticket is blank, except for one marked with a black dot.
The event that follows shows that human nature is weak and flawed. The villagers’ actions reveal their gullibility and hypocrisy, but they do not question the underlying morality of the lottery or its implications for society. They simply believe that the odds of winning are so incredibly favorable that it is worth doing whatever it takes to get in on the action.
Today’s lotteries send a very different message. The oversized jackpots on those billboards imply that it is possible to make a huge fortune by simply buying a ticket. The reality is, however, that it is a rare event and most people do not have the resources to make it happen. In fact, for most of the last thirty years, we have lived in an era in which income inequality has increased, jobs and pensions have disappeared, health care costs have skyrocketed, and the long-held national promise that hard work will make you richer than your parents ceased to be true for the vast majority of Americans.