The word lottery refers to a process of selection in which winners are chosen by chance. It’s a kind of gambling, in which people buy numbered tickets, and then several numbers are drawn at random. The people who have the winning numbers receive a prize. The term is also used to describe other arrangements whose outcome depends on luck or chance. For example, choosing judges for a court case or deciding which sports team to sponsor are both types of lottery arrangements.
The story The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson, takes place in a remote American village. On Lottery Day, the head of every family draws a folded slip of paper from a box. The slips are all blank except for one, which is marked with a black spot. If the head of a family draws that slip, that family will be punished. The punishment is usually death. Tessie Hutchinson, the protagonist in the story, is a middle-aged housewife who has been selected for a punishment.
In colonial America, the practice of holding lotteries was widespread. They were often a major source of public revenue, helping to finance roads, libraries, churches, colleges, canals, bridges, and other projects. In addition, colonists would sometimes hold private lotteries to raise money for particular purposes, such as a military expedition or a church building.
Lotteries were particularly popular in the 1740s, during the time of the French and Indian War. They raised money for both private and public ventures, including the foundation of Columbia and Princeton Universities. They were also a significant source of income for the British Crown, helping to fund the army and local militias during the war.
After the war, state governments began to adopt lotteries. They were often promoted as a way to provide “painless” revenue to the government, without raising taxes. In an anti-tax era, the lottery was seen as a win-win situation. But studies show that the popularity of lotteries is not related to a state’s actual fiscal health. Instead, it appears that voters want the state to spend more, and politicians look at lotteries as a way to do so for free.
In recent years, states have increasingly pushed to legalize lotteries in order to increase the amount of money they can spend. This has been driven by the fact that lotteries generate enormous profits, and it is not easy for legislators to justify higher tax rates in an era of declining popularity for most state programs. Despite the ethical objections of many observers, it seems likely that lotteries will continue to be an important part of the American landscape for some time. They are a classic example of the strange but true phenomenon that, when something is free, it becomes more desirable than when it is not. Copyright (c) 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. For permission to reuse this material, contact the editor at [email protected].