A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes are allocated to members of a class through a process that relies on chance. It is, of course, a form of gambling and is therefore regulated by law in some countries. But there is more to a lottery than that; it is an attempt to create wealth in a time when the dream of instant riches has a particular appeal.

This is the setting for Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery. It tells the story of two old crooks in a remote American village who organize a lottery to pay for the burial of their brother’s body. The story begins the night before the lottery. The crooks plan a list of the town’s wealthy families. They then prepare a set of tickets, one for each family. The tickets are blank, except for one marked with a black dot. These are placed in a wooden box, which is kept in the office of Mr. Summers.

When the lottery was first introduced in America, some of its proponents claimed that it would relieve state governments of the burden of raising taxes on poor and working people. This claim grew more plausible during the immediate post-World War II period, when states were expanding their array of social services without having to ask middle-class and working people to shoulder too much of the cost; but by the nineteen-seventies, as income inequality widened, pensions and health care costs rose, and the long-held promise that hard work would bring financial security seemed less and less likely to be fulfilled, it was increasingly clear that the lottery was not going to save us from economic collapse.