What is a Lottery?


Lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn and prizes are awarded by chance. This type of gambling arrangement has a wide appeal, especially in America where lottery revenues are a substantial portion of state budgets. The word is derived from the Latin loteria, which means “drawing of lots.” The first lotteries were probably private games organized by wealthy families as entertainment at dinner parties. The prizes were often fancy items such as dinnerware. In the 15th century, towns in the Low Countries held public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and help the poor. Some of these early lotteries were recorded in the town records of Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges.

During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin used a lottery to try to raise funds to buy cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British. Lotteries also were used to fund projects such as paving streets, building wharves, and erecting churches in colonial America. Lotteries were also common in the 18th century as a means of collecting “voluntary taxes” to finance such institutions as Harvard, Yale, and King’s College.

Today, there are 37 states and the District of Columbia that have a state lottery. The first modern state lottery was launched in 1964 in New Hampshire, and the rest of the country soon followed suit. In a typical state lottery, people purchase a ticket and choose numbers to match those drawn by a machine or drawn from a hat. Prizes can range from cash to valuable goods and services, such as a car or a house. The popularity of the lottery has been driven largely by the promise of instant wealth and by the advertising campaigns that feature big jackpots.

The public has a deep, inextricable urge to gamble, and this is a powerful force driving state-sponsored lotteries. It is why the winners of the Mega Millions and Powerball draw huge crowds. It is why people are drawn to the billboards that advertise the size of the jackpots and the snazzy graphics that are used to promote the winning combinations.

But there is another factor at work, too. Lotteries have developed a message that is quite different from the one pushed by the private sector: that people should feel a sense of civic duty to participate in the lottery, that it is their “civic responsibility” to do so, that they are doing good things for the state by doing so. This is a dangerously false message. Lotteries are in reality a form of coerced gambling, and the fact that they are funded by tax dollars has a negative effect on society. The public must understand this truth and act accordingly. The narrator in “The Lottery” tries to do so by choosing Tessie Hutchinson to be the winner of the lottery and thereby demonstrate her opposition to the whole scheme.

Posted in: Gambling