The History of the Lottery

In many states, the lottery is a large source of government revenue. Its popularity varies with demographics, however. Lottery play is more common among men than women; blacks and Hispanics than whites; and the young than the middle age group. In addition, people from lower socioeconomic neighborhoods are disproportionately more likely to play the lottery than those from higher income areas. Lottery revenues tend to increase dramatically in the first few years of operation, but then level off and decline, requiring states to introduce new games to maintain or even increase their profits.

Making decisions and determining fates by the casting of lots has a long history in human society, including several instances in the Bible. However, the use of lotteries as a means of raising money for material goods is relatively recent. Lotteries may take the form of drawing numbers and symbols printed on paper tickets, numbered receipts purchased in a store that are submitted to the lottery organization for shuffling and selection in a draw; or they may be conducted using a computer system with participants paying by electronic means. The basic elements of a lottery are as follows:

One major theme in Shirley Jackson’s story is the power of tradition. Old Man Warner, a character in the story who represents conservative forces, insists that people should follow tradition and that those who do not are a pack of crazy fools. This is a small point, but it illustrates that tradition holds powerful sway over the lives of the characters.

Throughout the story, the villagers believe that the box is ancient and that they have been following it for generations. They do not question it, even when they see that the odds are not in their favor. This is a powerful illustration of the way that tradition can hold sway over people, even when that tradition is no longer relevant or serves no purpose.

The story also shows the way that lottery players become a specific constituency for the state government, with its own special interests: convenience stores (who benefit from selling tickets); suppliers to the lottery (heavy contributions to political campaigns are frequently reported); teachers, who in states where a significant portion of lottery proceeds is earmarked for education receive substantial increases in school spending; and state legislators, who quickly become accustomed to the additional revenue. The lottery is one of the few forms of gambling where public officials and private individuals have conflicting interests.

While the majority of people in the United States participate in the lottery at some point in their lifetime, most never win the big prize. A very few, though, have a very high percentage chance of winning, and these are known as “smart bettors.” They have studied the odds and come up with a plan for playing the lottery that maximizes their chances of winning. This plan involves purchasing a large number of tickets and only selecting the ones that have the best chance of winning.