The Lottery and Its Impact on Society


The lottery is an undeniably popular form of gambling, operating on every continent except Antarctica and offering a chance to win a large prize with relatively small risk. It also provides a valuable source of revenue for state governments that would otherwise be forced to raise taxes or cut services. But as the popularity of lotteries has increased, so have concerns about their impact on society.

Lottery critics often argue that the process is immoral or at least unethical because it relies on chance to allocate prizes rather than the effort and talent of applicants or competitors. Some people also object to the idea of gambling because it conflicts with their religious or moral beliefs. Others simply dislike the idea of government-sponsored gambling.

While these objections are valid, they have been largely overshadowed by the popularity of the lottery and the need for states to fund social service programs. In the nineteen-sixties, Cohen argues, these factors converged to create a perfect storm of political and economic conditions that made lottery proponents’ pitch much easier to swallow. State budgets were under pressure because of an expanding population and rising inflation, and raising taxes or cutting services was a sure way to wreak havoc with voters. Lotteries offered a quick, easy fix.

Unlike many other forms of gambling, which can be traced back thousands of years, the modern lottery was born in the seventeenth century in England. It helped finance the English colonization of America and then spread to the American colonies despite Protestant bans on dice playing, gambling, and public lotteries. Early lotteries were often tangled up in the slave trade, as when George Washington managed a Virginia lottery whose prizes included human beings and when a formerly enslaved man named Denmark Vesey won a South Carolina lottery and used his winnings to foment slavery revolts.

The odds of winning a lottery prize are based on the number of tickets sold and the amount of money awarded for each ticket. A percentage of the total pool is normally deducted as organizing and promoting costs, and other administrative expenses, and another percentage goes to lottery sponsors as revenues and profits. The remaining portion, called the prize pool, is then divided into multiple winners and a set of rules determines the frequency and size of prizes.

A common prize is a lump sum of cash, but other prizes may be a vehicle for purchasing merchandise or services. Most lotteries also award a number of smaller prizes, in addition to the main prize, in order to boost sales and attract potential bettors. In some cultures, potential bettors demand that the majority of the prize pool be reserved for large prizes (so that the jackpot can be rolled over to the next drawing), while in other countries, bettors prefer the higher likelihood of winning a smaller prize.

The short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson uses the lottery as a metaphor to illustrate the role of tradition in the lives of her characters. Using life-death cycle archetypes, the author shows how following traditions and rituals blindly can lead to tragedy.