A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn to determine the winners of a prize. The word is thought to have been derived from Middle Dutch lot, a calque on the French word loterie, which in turn is probably a calque on Middle Dutch lotinge “action of drawing lots” or “act of distributing something” (Oxford English Dictionary). Lotteries are often used to raise money for public works projects, especially large ones like roads and bridges. They are also popular in many cultures as a way to distribute wealth. Generally, the cost of organizing and promoting the lottery is deducted from the prize pool; a percentage goes as revenues and profits to the state or sponsor; and the remainder is awarded to the winners. The frequency of drawings and the size of prizes vary among lotteries, but the odds of winning are based on a combination of factors including the number of tickets sold and the complexity of the draw.
In The Lottery, Shirley Jackson illustrates how an apparently benign tradition can quickly morph into an immoral one. As the story opens, Lottery Day has come to town. The head of each family draws a folded slip from a box. All the slips are marked except one, which bears a black spot. If the family head draws the black-spotted slip, he or she must buy another ticket and draw again for the next slip.
The underlying issue is one of utility: if the expected entertainment value of a lottery purchase outweighs the disutility of losing, it might make sense for an individual to play. But critics point out that lottery spending tends to rise in periods of economic fluctuation, as incomes fall, unemployment increases, health-care costs mount, and the American dream that hard work will pay off erodes. In addition, they argue that lottery advertising is biased, presenting misleading information about the odds of winning and inflating the value of prizes (which are typically paid out in equal annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding their current value).