The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling in which participants purchase tickets for the chance to win prizes based on random selections. It can involve any number of items, including units in a subsidized housing block, kindergarten placements, or cash. The casting of lots has a long record in human history, although its use for material gain is relatively recent. In colonial America, for example, lotteries raised money for a wide range of public usages, from road construction to building colleges and churches.

Tessie, the character at the center of Jackson’s story, shows how people can become addicted to lottery play, even though they know that winning is improbable. She is a middle-aged housewife who has been playing the lottery for years, spending $50 or $100 a week on tickets. She argues that she has a sliver of hope that she will win, and the excitement she feels when she buys tickets helps her get through the day.

In states that have lotteries, public debate about them typically centers on specific features of the operation, such as its alleged regressive impact on lower-income citizens or its problems with compulsive gamblers. However, once a lottery is established, the industry is characterized by piecemeal evolution and the absence of a general policy on its development. As a result, the decision makers involved do not take the general public welfare into consideration, and they often develop a strong dependency on lottery revenues.