Who Really Won the Big Powerball Lottery?

By now, most of us have seen the toothless smile of Mr. Chris Shaw, the young feller from Missouri who found himself the sole winner of the 10th largest multi-state lottery jackpot to date in the US.  His take: $258 million.  His plans: pay his bills, take the kids to Disney World, and see a dentist about getting some front teeth.

This is the sort of story that engenders some sort of reaction from nearly everyone.  Some are heartened.  Here’s an average Joe, barely getting by from paycheck to paycheck, whose life is changed instantly and who – if he’s careful – will never have to worry about money again.

Yes, the evidence suggests that these sorts of windfalls can really spoil things.  But if he sticks with the priorities he’s already articulated (take care of your family, your obligations, and yourself), he has as good a shot as anyone at making this work.

But other folks see a darker side to this story.  News reports tell us that Mr. Shaw was down to less than $30 in his bank account, that he owed a friend $1,000 on a truck he’d bought, and that he was pressed to pay his utility bills.  If that’s the case, then why on earth would he hazard a precious $5 on a nearly sure loss?

Critics claim that lotteries take advantage of those who can’t manage the math.  Multiplication isn’t all that fun, and it’s downright painful when the probabilities get tissue paper thin.  For every Mr. Shaw, the reasoning goes, there are millions of other people who also can’t afford to play the lottery.  He won, but all the other poor folks are now just that much poorer.  Right?

Well, not so fast.  It’s true that nearly everyone who played lost their money; the chance of winning the grand prize is one in 195 million.  And it’s also true that that’s who paid for Mr. Shaw’s big win (and then some).  But the data aren’t so compelling when it comes to the claim that lotteries take advantage of people that can’t do math.

But perhaps the most straightforward answer is that Mr. Shaw – along with Ms. Smith, Dr. Jones and millions of other people – are not playing the lottery to win. Instead, they’re buying the right to imagine winning.

And imagining is a lovely thing.  We watch a tennis match and imagine ourselves right there on the court.  We look at travel offers and can almost feel the sand between our toes.  And many of us pay a lot more than $5 every time we sit down in a darkened room with sticky floors and gnaw on a tub of overpriced popcorn… all for the privilege of being transported – if only for a little while – to a different time and place.

Millions of folks (including lots of folks who can do the math) routinely plop down their money for the chance to dream.  For Mr. Shaw, that dream came true.  Let’s hope he can enjoy it.

(Note: this entry originally appeared at consumerology.com)

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