Lottery is an arrangement in which prizes, of money or goods, are allocated by a process that depends on chance. Although it is sometimes used to raise public funds, it cannot be considered a form of gambling because the process does not involve payment for a chance to win. Modern examples include state-sponsored raffles, commercial promotions in which properties or services are given away by a process of random selection and jury selection.
In the 17th century, Dutch and English colonists used a variety of lotteries to fund many projects. They were hailed as a painless form of taxation, and grew in popularity. They financed the building of museums, churches, canals, roads, bridges and more. They also provided much needed funds for the colonies during wartime, and helped them overcome financial difficulties.
Jackson’s short story takes place in an unnamed village during the annual lottery. It is June 27, and the people have assembled to participate in the lottery, as they have done every year for centuries. They are not affluent, but they seem happy and content. The children are the first to assemble, as they always are. They wait with anticipation, while Old Man Warner repeats an old proverb: “Lottery in June, corn will be heavy soon.”
It is not clear what the lottery is all about or what its purpose is. It seems that some of the villagers believe that winning the lottery is a way to gain riches and live better than they currently do. Others seem to think that the lottery is a way to ensure a good harvest. And then there are the ones who believe that it is a way to avoid paying taxes.
The winners of the lottery are usually very clear-eyed about how the odds work and they know that they are playing a game with long odds. They have all sorts of quote-unquote systems, about buying tickets in lucky stores or at the right time of day, and about what types of tickets to buy. Some of them have even formed blind trusts through their attorneys to receive the prize money if they are fortunate enough to be a winner.
Those who have never won the lottery tend to have less sophisticated reasoning. They believe that the lottery is a great way to get rid of property taxes, and they also like to think of it as a way to support education or other social programs without having to increase the taxes on the rich. Some of them even argue that winning the lottery would be a great way to help their kids pay for college.
When lotteries first appeared, they were seen as a way for states to expand their array of services without raising onerous taxes on working people and middle class families. They were especially popular in Northeastern states with larger social safety nets, which desperately needed extra revenue. Today, the majority of Americans play the lottery at least once a year, and players are disproportionately low-income, less educated, nonwhite and male. Lotteries are a major source of revenue for states, but they also carry some very serious costs and risks.