On Thursday night, at least three people won in the drawing for the largest Powerball jackpot on record. The winners of the $1.5 billion pot are from California, Florida, and Tennessee, but results from other states are pending and more could surface.
Powerball fever gripped the country ahead of the drawing, particularly when a previous one resulted in no winners and boosted the overall pot. It’s the largest jackpot for any lottery game in the entire country.
But those lucky few who actually won — besting the one-in-292 million odds — might not end up so lucky in the end.
Landing a sudden windfall like the lottery often, counterintuitively, changes lives for the worst. The National Endowment for Financial Education estimates that as much as 70 percent of people who are abruptly flooded with cash lose all the money within several years. A study in Britain found that 44 percent of lottery winners’ earnings were spent after five years. Another of Florida lottery winners who netted up to $150,000 found that about 1 percent went bankrupt in any given year, about twice the rate of the general population, and while those who got larger pots didn’t tend to go bankrupt as quickly, it still ended up catching up with them.
The money also can’t buy happiness. An influential 1978 study found that lottery winners ended up no happier than other randomly selected people and even took significantly less pleasure in everyday happiness, such as talking to a friend or receiving a compliment. A more recent 2008 study found that six months after winning the lottery, people were no happier than those who didn’t win.
The history books are littered with real life examples of lives that should have been improved by an influx of money but instead ended up in debt, misery, and even death.
Ibi Ronciaoli, who won $5 million in 1991, had lost it all by 2003, much of it spent on alcohol and gambling, as was her wealthy husband’s fortune. Shortly after that her husband was found guilty for poisoning her and killing her.
Evelyn Adams won the New Jersey lottery two years in a row in the mid-1980s, netting $5.4 million, but she gambled those winnings away and had nothing left by 2001, leaving her to live in a trailer.
Willie Hurt of Florida won $3.1 million in 1989, only to have spent it all two years later and, on top of that, be charged with killing a woman over crack cocaine.
William “Bud” Post III won $16.2 million in the Pennsylvania lottery in 1998 but only survived his brother’s attempt on his life to end up in bankruptcy and then dead in 2006 at the age of 66.
David Lee Edwards and his soon to be wife won $41 million in 2001 in the Kentucky lottery. But they spent $12 million in one year alone, buying a number of luxury cars, mansions, and a jet, and ended up losing all of the money, filing for divorce, and David died two years ago.
Michael Carroll, a British garbageman who won the equivalent of $15.2 million in 2002, spent it all on drugs, gambling, and prostitutes and ended up returning to his previous job eight years later. He attempted suicide twice.
At the age of 16, British woman Callie Rogers won $3 million but was broke by 2009 after it was all spent on vacations, cars, gifts, and drugs. She ended up working as a maid and attempted suicide twice.
After Jack Whittaker won $315 million in the Powerball in 2002, then the largest jackpot won by a single person, his construction company was flooded with lawsuits that cost him $3 million to fight, he repeatedly had large sums of money stolen, and his granddaughter spent her share on drugs, dying in 2004. “My granddaughter is dead because of the money,” he said. “You know, my wife had said she wished that she had torn the ticket up. Well, I wish that we had torn the ticket up too.”
There are also a number of stories of winners whose family sued them and even attempted to kill them, with others attempting to kill themselves. Certainly not everyone who wins the lottery will end up bankrupt or dead. But the suddenness of the life change can be fraught and a huge sum of money can’t fix everyone’s problems.
The people who don’t win, of course, are no better off. Americans spend $70 billion on tickets each year, and the overwhelming majority of those players are poor and can least afford to lose the money. Even so, states keep pushing their lotteries because they are a source of revenue, and while they promise to use the money to fund services like education, that almost never actually pans out.