A lottery is a game in which tickets are sold for the chance to win a prize, such as money or goods. A state or national lottery may be run by a private corporation, a nongovernmental organization, or a government. Prizes can be awarded for a variety of reasons, including skill, a random drawing, or a predetermined combination of elements. The term is also used for a number of other arrangements in which a payment is made for the chance to receive something.
In the short story, Cohen focuses on the modern incarnation of the lottery, which began in 1964 with New Hampshire’s approval of a state-run lottery and was rapidly followed by other states. This reincarnation of the lottery was driven by the need to balance state budgets in the face of a population boom, inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War. As Cohen explains, these forces made it difficult to raise taxes or cut services, and the result was that the lottery became a popular alternative.
People play the lottery for a variety of reasons, including the desire to increase their wealth and the thrill of winning. The wealthy tend to buy more tickets than the poor, but they spend a smaller percentage of their incomes on them; according to consumer financial company Bankrate, players making more than fifty thousand dollars a year spend about one per cent of their income on lottery tickets.
Lotteries have a long history—they are mentioned in the Bible, and they were commonplace during the Roman Saturnalia festivities; Nero was a fan. But it is difficult to argue that they are a good idea in the abstract. The real problem is that they are dangling the promise of instant riches in an era of inequality and limited social mobility.