Mr. Nocera looks at “The Bad Luck of Winning.” He says two lucky ticket-holders struck it rich this week in the Powerball. This raises a question: Why do so many lottery winners wind up broke? Ms. Collins, in “Mitt’s Oval Office Moment,” says a makeup meal at the White House doesn’t even have to make the loser feel better. Here’s Mr. Nocera:
“We’re normal human beings,” said Cindy Hill on Friday, moments after she and her husband, Mark, posed with an oversized check for $293,750,000. “We’re common,” she added. “We just have more money.”
The check, of course, represented their half of the $588 million Powerball jackpot, which the Hills had just won, along with another, as yet unidentified, winner. From one point of view — the point of view of lottery officials — you couldn’t ask for more ideal winners than the Hills.
Mark works for a meatpacking plant. Cindy is a clerical worker who was laid off in June 2010. When they were introduced to the news media on Friday, their adopted daughter in tow, they talked about how the money might allow them to adopt another child. They said they were going to help various relatives pay for college. They insisted that the money wouldn’t change them. The only extravagance they mentioned was a red Camaro that Mark wanted. They made winning the lottery seem downright heartwarming.
But it’s not. On the contrary, lotteries may well be the single most insidious way that state governments raise money. Many of the people who buy lottery tickets are poor; lotteries are essentially a form of regressive taxation. The odds against winning a big jackpot are astronomical — far worse than the odds at an Atlantic City slot machine. The get-rich-quick marketing — by government, let’s not forget — is offensive. One New York Powerball ad shows a private jet emblazoned with the words “Kevin’s Airline.” The tag line reads: “Yeah, that kind of rich.”
Oh, and let’s not forget the fate of the people who win. They may be “that kind of rich” on the day they hit the jackpot, but, more often than not, they don’t stay that way. People who suddenly fall into extreme wealth — whether because of an insurance settlement, a professional sports contract, or a lottery win — rarely know how to handle their new circumstances.
There is, to take one of the most prominent examples, the story of Jack Whittaker, a West Virginia businessman who won a $315 million Powerball jackpot in 2002. A decade later, his daughter and granddaughter had died of drug overdoses, his wife had divorced him, and he had been sued numerous times. Once, when he was at a strip club, someone drugged his drink and took $545,000 in cash that had been sitting in his car. He later sobbed to reporters, “I wish I’d torn that ticket up.”
I read about Whittaker, and a host of other sad stories about lottery winners, in a recent e-book written by Don McNay entitled, “Life Lessons From the Lottery.” McNay is a financial adviser and newspaper columnist, based in Kentucky, whom I’ve gotten to know over the years. He specializes in helping people who have come into sudden money. He is convinced that the vast majority of people who win big-money lotteries, like the recent Powerball prize, wind up broke within five years. “The money just overwhelms them,” he told me the other day. “It just causes them to lose their sense of values.”
Every once in a while, a lottery jackpot, like the recent Powerball, becomes so large that it attracts national attention. People who normally understand that lotteries are a sucker’s game, can’t resist buying a ticket or two. It all seems like good fun. It is worth remembering the damage lotteries do — sucking money from the disadvantaged, while burdening the winners with sums they can’t handle — and remembering as well this is the doing not of some nasty corporation but of government. Whatever else lotteries are, they aren’t harmless.
It is impossible to know whether the Hills will be able to remain “normal” once they cash their nine-figure check. McNay says that those who do the best are the people who are able to remain anonymous, take the money in annual increments, find a good financial adviser who can insulate them from all the new friends they are going to have, and spend their money with some real purpose in mind.
Based on what they said at the press conference, the Hills seem conscious of the need to get professional financial help. On the other hand, they are anything but anonymous. Like most states, Missouri insists on showcasing lottery winners, as it did with the Hills on Friday. What better marketing tool for lottery officials than the winners’ happy smiles and that oversized check? The Hills, alas, have also decided to take their money in a lump sum, which, after taxes and a lump-sum discount, will amount to $132 million.
“Powerball Winners Already Divorced, Bankrupt,” read the headline in the satirical newspaper, The Onion, the day after the winning numbers were announced.
It was a funny story, but it’s no joke.
Now here’s Ms. Collins:
Our subject for today is: Important Holiday Traditions Involving Mitt Romney.
You undoubtedly have heard that Barack Obama invited Romney for lunch this week, in what was described in many reports as a longstanding tradition of re-elected presidents having a good-fellowship meal with the person whose political dreams they had just shattered.
“They pledged to stay in touch, particularly if opportunities to work together on shared interests arise in the future,” said the official report. “Their lunch menu included white turkey chili and Southwestern grilled chicken salad.”
You’d think they could have served meat loaf. Mitt’s favorite food is meat loaf. Also, Mitt loves practical jokes, and if Obama had really wanted to get in the spirit of things, he could have had Romney arrested by the Capitol Police in the lobby.
There was no press coverage allowed. The two men posed for a rather uncomfortable-looking picture, and then, the White House said, had a nice discussion about “America’s leadership in the world and the importance of maintaining that leadership position in the future.”
A good time was had by all. Well, really, what did you want them to talk about? Whether Mitt could use his extensive popularity with Congressional Republicans to help resolve the fiscal cliff?
The loser-comes-to-the-White-House-for-lunch tradition is an excellent tradition, even though it seems this was actually the first one in memory. George W. Bush didn’t invite John Kerry in 2004. Bill Clinton never gave Bob Dole a postelection meal, though he did give him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was probably more enjoyable. The historian Michael Beschloss says President Reagan didn’t invite Walter Mondale.
One of the important things about traditions is that they don’t have to be all that traditional as long as you get into the spirit. I was moved recently when a friend told me about how his family always gets together to celebrate Thanksgiving with a large breakfast. Every year I look forward to having Christmas with my husband’s family, an event that always takes place around Dec. 8.
The postelection lunch is certainly a better White House tradition than the Thanksgiving turkey pardoning, although I do like seeing the look on Malia Obama’s face whenever her dad tries to get her to pat the bird. Also, we do not want to repeat anything involving Joe Biden shopping at Costco for pies.
The makeup meal doesn’t even have to make the loser feel better. (In 2008, Obama had John McCain over for a postelection meeting in Chicago, and you can see what a healing effect that had on McCain’s ego.) The point is that you have two super-prominent men who hate each other doing something meaningless just because it’s the civil thing to do.
There was a brief and desperate speculation before this week’s lunch that Obama might be planning to offer Romney a post as secretary of commerce. It’s true that Commerce is not exactly a power hub in most administrations, but presidents generally appoint people from the other party to cabinet jobs because they want to please the opposition. Obama could get more Republican good will by giving Commerce to Alec Baldwin.
The idea of a get-together with Romney first came up during the president’s victory speech. He elaborated at his first postelection news conference, saying that Romney “presented some ideas during the course of the campaign that I actually agree with.”
The “actually” didn’t sound all that enthusiastic. Also, when it came time to praise his former rival, Obama said Romney “did a terrific job running the Olympics.”
Romney said nothing whatsoever about the invitation. Perhaps he’s reflected on his gifts for spontaneous comment since he told donors that Obama had won the votes of college-age women by offering them free contraceptives. Maybe he has decided never to speak in public again. But you do have to give him points for showing up for the lunch. He cannot be in a good mood. His lifetime dream is rubble. He got 47 percent of the vote. He’s working out of his kid’s office. Chris Christie is the most popular person in the nation.
As Romney’s SUV approached the White House grounds, police stopped a man who tried to reach for the car yelling “Mitt! Mitt!” It wasn’t clear what he had in mind. Perhaps he was an angry dog lover who still hasn’t gotten over the fact that Romney once drove to Canada with an Irish setter strapped to the car roof. Perhaps he was a disappointed fan, eager to discuss the Tea Party’s clever plan to resuscitate the Romney presidency by organizing a boycott of the Electoral College.
Anyhow, it was sort of par for the course. The man was arrested. The SUV rolled on, driving Mitt toward the White House and the white turkey chili.