What is a Lottery?


A lottery is the procedure by which a prize (usually money or goods) is distributed to many people through chance. The prize may be a small chance of winning a large sum of money or the chance to win something of lower value, such as a ticket for the next drawing. Lottery tickets are often printed with numbers or symbols and are purchased in exchange for a small amount of money, though some are sold for free.

A few centuries ago, Europeans began holding public lotteries to raise funds for a variety of projects. They were popular in the American colonies, too, and helped finance Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, and other colleges. They also helped fund the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Privately organized lotteries were widespread as well, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

The short story, “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson depicts a town’s annual lottery in which the people are forced to choose one of the villagers to be stoned to death. The story’s main character, Mrs. Hutchinson, has been a willing participant in the lottery and realizes too late that she is about to be stoned. Her final complaint, “It isn’t fair,” echoes the biblical verse: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).

While the word lottery conjures up images of large jackpots and other high-dollar prizes, most lottery prizes are much smaller. In the United States, for example, most lottery winnings are less than $20,000; however, a few millionaires have made it big on the national lottery scene.

There are more than 50 different types of scratch-off lottery tickets available to the general public at any given time, and most of them resemble the decor for a kindergarten classroom in terms of primary colors, dollar signs, and shiny glinting symbols like shooting stars and stacks of silver coins. The tickets’ designs make the lotteries seem more like a children’s game than a serious form of government-sponsored gambling, although some experts believe that scratch-off lottery tickets can be addictive.

In the United States, it is legal to sell lottery tickets and most state governments regulate them, although some have banned certain categories of prizes, such as automobiles. The winners of the lottery are subject to taxation, but the exact amount depends on the size of the prize and the state’s tax rate. Federal taxes are 24 percent, and state and local taxes may add another 30 to 40 percent. Combined, these taxes can take almost half of the winnings, which makes the lottery less attractive to some. Some lotteries offer lump-sum payments and others allow the winner to choose between a cash prize or annuity, which is paid over a period of years. In the latter case, the winner must invest some of the money and may lose some of it if it is not invested wisely. A growing number of states, especially those that have large populations of retirees, are beginning to offer annuity-type lottery games.