The Dark Underbelly of Lottery


Lottery is a popular form of gambling, in which people bet on the chance that they will win a large cash prize. Often, a percentage of the profits are donated to charitable organizations. People may play a lottery for the thrill of winning or to get money for things they need. People also play to improve their chances of winning, by purchasing tickets with higher numbers or more expensive ones.

In the US, about 50 percent of adults buy a lottery ticket at least once in a year. The number is much higher among those who are lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, or male. The top 20 to 30 percent of players make up 70 to 80 percent of total national sales. Most of these players are not frequent buyers; instead, they spend one to two dollars a week on tickets and win a small amount over time. The average winning prize is about $2,500.

The practice of distributing property or other items by lot has a long history in human societies, including several references in the Bible. It was a common activity at dinner parties in ancient Rome, where guests would receive pieces of wood marked with symbols and then participate in a drawing for prizes during Saturnalian celebrations. The first recorded public lottery, held in the Western world during the reign of Augustus Caesar, distributed money for municipal repairs in the city of Rome.

State governments often sponsor lotteries, with the proceeds benefiting a variety of projects or public services. Lotteries have wide appeal as a source of revenue because they provide a relatively low level of risk for participants. Unlike most other types of gambling, the prize in a lottery is predetermined, and the amounts of tickets sold are typically limited. In most cases, the total value of prizes is the amount that remains after expenses such as profits for the promoter and costs of promotion are deducted from the pool.

Lotteries are big business, generating more than $30 billion in the US last year alone. Despite their enormous popularity, however, there is a dark underbelly to them: they are a source of false hope for many people. People buy tickets in the belief that they will be able to escape from poverty, or at least ease their financial burdens.

In this short story, Shirley Jackson depicts the sins of humanity in a small American village during a lottery event. The heads of families draw a slip of paper from a black box, and if theirs is marked with a black dot, they must draw again for a new slip. This is just one of the many ways that the lottery erodes the values of this close-knit community. It is easy to see why so many people are drawn to it: they believe the promise of instant riches, even though they are almost certain not to win. And if they do, they will probably spend their winnings on something other than what they need.