The Bad Side of Winning the Lottery

As the jackpot for this week’s Powerball draw nears $1 billion, many Americans are dreaming a little — or, in some cases, a lot. But before you start fantasizing about how winning the lottery would solve all your problems, keep in mind that there are plenty of stories out there of people whose lives turned for the WORSE after they won the big prize.

The history of the lottery goes back centuries. The Old Testament instructs Moses to take a census and divide the land among its inhabitants by lot, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away property and even slaves. British colonists brought lotteries to the United States, where they were initially met with strong opposition from Christians. But as state governments struggled to find budgetary solutions that wouldn’t enrage anti-tax voters, lotteries started to grow in popularity.

By the 1970s, fourteen states (Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) had established lotteries. The success of these lotteries encouraged other states to adopt them. In addition to traditional drawn tickets, some states also offered scratch-offs and pull-tabs. Scratch-offs are tickets with numbers printed on the front and a hidden surface to be scratched off, while pull-tabs have numbers on the back that must be pulled up to reveal them. Both types of tickets cost less than a dollar and offer small prizes.

But while the popularity of the lottery grew, it remained a minor source of revenue for state governments. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the lottery began to have a major impact on state budgets. This was partly due to the popularity of keno, a form of the lottery that was played by telephone.

In the early 1990s, lottery advocates shifted their strategy. Rather than touting the lottery as a budgetary silver bullet, they began to emphasize how it would fund a specific line item, invariably something popular and nonpartisan, such as education, public parks, or veterans’ aid. This narrower approach made legalization easier.

As of 2004, the United States had forty-two state-operated lotteries, which were monopolies that prohibited commercial competition. They are funded by the money paid for tickets, and proceeds go to state coffers.

In the United States, where the majority of adults play the lottery, the average annual lottery ticket cost is about $80 per person. That’s about the same amount of money that the typical American struggles to put aside each month for an emergency fund or to pay down credit card debt. Instead of playing the lottery, we should be saving that money for a better future. That way, we can avoid the financial disaster that many lottery winners experience after winning their jackpots. The odds of winning are extremely low, but it’s a lot more fun to gamble than to stress over your bills. And, who knows, maybe someday you’ll be one of the lucky ones! Until then, good luck.