The Problems of the Lottery


The lottery is a game of chance in which a person or group wins a prize by drawing numbers or other symbols from a container. Lotteries are popular around the world and are a common form of gambling. They can be used for a variety of reasons, including raising money for public projects. Although some people criticize the practice, others consider it a legitimate way to fund social services and public goods. The lottery has also been used as a means of collecting voluntary taxes, and it has helped raise funds for many American colleges. It has also been a source of political corruption.

The villagers gather in the square on June 27 for the town lottery. The black box, which contains slips of paper, is brought out by Mr. Summers, who runs the lottery, and his associate, Mr. Graves. Various groups of villagers, men and women, children and grandparents, gather to draw their numbers. The villagers are patient and calm. They don’t have to wait long; the lottery takes only two hours.

A rumor is spreading that Bill Hutchinson won the lottery. Tessie tries to convince Mr. Summers that it wasn’t fair that Bill drew with his married daughter, but the man refuses to change the outcome. Tessie is irate, but she and her husband will not give up their annual tradition of lottery playing.

Some people play the lottery to help their families out, while others do it for the thrill of winning. But many of them go in clear-eyed about the odds. They know that their chances of winning are slim, but they also believe that their luck will turn sometime. They may have all sorts of quote-unquote systems, based on irrational gambling behavior, about lucky numbers and stores and times of day to buy tickets, but they understand that the odds don’t get better over time.

Super-sized jackpots drive lottery sales, and they also earn the games a windfall of free publicity on news sites and newscasts. The games try to grow their prizes as fast as possible, and this can have some unintended consequences. It may mean that people who don’t win can be left holding the bag — and that they might not feel they’re as “due” to win as those who do.

The biggest problem with lotteries is that they dangle the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited upward mobility. The vast majority of lottery players come from the 21st through 60th percentiles, a group with a few dollars in their pockets for discretionary spending and not much else to spend it on. The very poor, in contrast, don’t even have enough to afford a ticket. Lotteries are regressive in their impact, but they also contribute to an ugly underbelly of hopelessness.