The lottery is a popular form of gambling. People spend upwards of $100 billion on it every year, a staggering sum that helps states raise money for public services. But there’s a darker side to the lottery: the nagging belief that, against improbable odds, it could be your only way up. This inclination is especially strong in communities plagued by racial and economic disparity, which may explain why lotteries have long been associated with black poverty, despite the fact that they’re open to all.
Lotteries have a long history, with the first recorded ones held in the Low Countries in the 15th century. The early draws were meant to raise funds for town fortifications and help the poor. Then, in the nineteenth century, they began to spread to England and America, where they were widely accepted despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. The new advocates argued that the profits would go to the government, which could then use them to pay for schools, roads and other services — services that white voters didn’t want to pay for themselves. They also dismissed ethical objections by arguing that, since everyone would gamble anyway, governments might as well pocket the profits.
These arguments fueled an explosion of state-run lotteries. As the prizes grew to apparently newsworthy amounts, sales skyrocketed. To attract players, commissioners lifted prize caps and increased the number of numbers in a draw. This made the odds of winning a lot more challenging. But, as Cohen writes, that didn’t stop people from spending more and more on tickets.
What’s more, the national obsession with unimaginable wealth, including dreams of hitting a multimillion-dollar jackpot, coincided with a decline in financial security for most working Americans. As incomes dipped, pensions were eroded, health-care costs rose and the dream that education and hard work would lift you out of poverty began to falter, many people felt compelled to bolster their financial prospects by buying a lottery ticket or two.
So, if you’re tempted to buy into the lottery, think twice before making that bet. There’s no shortage of anecdotes about people who have won the big jackpot and ended up broke or worse off than they were before, often with their marriages ending and their relationships with friends and family strained. There’s even a name for this phenomenon: “lottery wealth shock.” It’s what happens when you suddenly come into a lot of money and have no idea how to handle it. And you can avoid this fate by following some simple strategies. Here are some of them: