The History of the Lottery

A lottery is a game in which numbered tickets are sold for a chance to win a prize. The prizes may be cash or goods, and the drawing of numbers is often done by computers, although some lotteries still use people to select the winning numbers. Lotteries are popular in many countries. Some people play them for fun, while others do it to improve their chances of winning a big jackpot.

While the lottery is often seen as a form of gambling, it has also been used to raise funds for various public purposes. The first recorded public lotteries in the modern sense of the term were held in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century to support town fortifications and help poor people. But the roots of lotteries go back much further, to a time when casting lots was a common practice for making important decisions, including who would rule the mighty Roman Empire and who should get Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion.

Early lotteries were mainly organized by churches and other religious institutions, but were later adopted by secular government agencies as a way to distribute money to the needy or reward good behavior. They were also used to finance major projects such as building the Great Wall of China, or to help establish universities.

By the nineteen-sixties, however, America’s prosperity waned, thanks to inflation and the cost of fighting the Vietnam War. The states’ budgets were being squeezed, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to balance them without raising taxes or cutting services. State legislators looked around for solutions, and found that the lottery was a quick and easy way to make revenue appear out of thin air.

In the beginning, as Cohen explains, state lottery advertising was heavily focused on neighborhoods that were disproportionately poor and black. The rationale was that if people in those neighborhoods were more aware of the odds, they might be less likely to overspend on tickets. But the truth is that promoting the lottery in disadvantaged areas increases sales overall, even among those who don’t overspend.

The most obvious reason for this is that when people feel desperate, they’re more willing to gamble. They might not understand the odds, and they might have “quote-unquote” systems that don’t jibe with statistical reasoning, but they’ll buy as many tickets as they can afford, and they’ll look for lucky numbers, or for stores that sell the most tickets.

As Jackson shows, this kind of desperation can be dangerous, and it inevitably leads to tragedies like the one that unfolds in her novel. But she doesn’t simply tell the story of those tragic events, she also uses it to explore the human capacity for violence when it is wrapped up in an appeal to tradition or social order. It is a profoundly disturbing book. And a compelling read. It will keep you up at night. -Jackson’s book is a finalist for the National Book Award.