What is a Lottery?


Lottery is a procedure for distributing something (often money or prizes) among a group of people by chance, using a drawing or similar process. Prizes may be fixed amounts of cash or goods, or a percentage of total receipts. A lottery is considered gambling if payment of some sort (a consideration) must be made for the chance to receive the prize, or if the amount of winnings is not fixed in advance. Lotteries are used in many different ways, including military conscription, commercial promotions, the selection of jury members, and the distribution of property after a death or divorce.

It is estimated that about 50 percent of Americans buy a lottery ticket at some point during the year. The players are disproportionately low-income, less educated, and nonwhite. They tend to buy fewer tickets, but spend more on each ticket. As a result, they generate more revenue per player than the average American consumer.

The use of lotteries dates back to ancient times. It was common for the Old Testament to divide land and other property by lot, and Roman emperors often distributed properties and slaves through lottery drawings at Saturnalian feasts. In the 17th century, many states resorted to lotteries to raise funds for various public uses. Alexander Hamilton wrote that “Everybody will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the chance of considerable gain.”

Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, describes a small-town America on a sunny Summer day when the locals gather for an annual lottery. They are all eager to participate, but the narrator notes that the children assemble first because they always do. This phrasing, along with Old Man Warner’s proverb (“Lottery in June; corn be heavy soon”), reinforce the ritual’s meaning as an annual sacrifice.