THE CURSE OF THE LOTTERY

Maxim W. Furek, MA, CADC, ICADC

Over fifty years ago, the Beatles instructed America’s youth in financial matters of the heart, singing “Money Can’t Buy Me Love.” Years later, then Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, while addressing graduates of the University of South Carolina, gave the optimistic students a similar message, perhaps one that they were not prepared to hear; money can’t buy you happiness, Bernanke instructed the Columbia, S.C. crowd and said:

“We all know that getting a better-paying job is one of the main reasons to go to college … But if you are ever tempted to go into a field or take a job only because the pay is high and for no other reason, be careful. Having a larger income is exciting at first, but as you get used to your new standard of living and as you associate with other people in your new income bracket, the thrill quickly wears off.”

Bernanke’s remarks reflected exactly what other studies have found, that just six months after winning a large lottery prize, even in the millions of dollars, people reported being not much happier than they were before the winning. As a matter of fact, those winners often received misery and misfortune in addition to their prize. Winning the lottery is not what everyone expects it to be. The National Endowment for Financial Education estimates that as many as 70 percent of those who land sudden windfalls lose their money within several years.

Many of us have fantasized about winning the lottery, imagining that such a lucky windfall would be an end to all of our problems. Spend a moment and visualize what you would do with a sudden cash prize of say, fifteen-million-dollars. One might immediately make a titillating list of life changing strategies such as quitting their job, buying a mansion, purchasing an expensive sports car, or embarking on a worldwide trip.

Another form of death
Although we all engage in the fanciful art of daydreaming, darker forces are fermenting just below the surface. Apprehension about the future is a driving force behind our endemic lottery fantasy. For example, not saving enough for retirement is a major fear of most Americans, and studies have shown that more Americans fear insufficient retirement savings than fear death. We would rather die that be left short of funds. Then too, not having enough money to survive or live at an optimal level of comfort is another form of death.

Research from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) shows there’s a pretty good chance that many Americans will run short of cash due to poor planning or by not having adequate funds to save or invest. According to the EBRI retirement Security Projection Model, an estimated 40.6% of all U.S. households headed by someone aged 35 to 64 are projected to run short of money during retirement. Four out of ten Americans will suffer having thousands too little in retirement funds and all of them will, in desperation, fantasize about hitting the lottery jackpot.

Why is it that many Powerball lottery winners soon find their lives upended as winners become losers and ecstasy turns into despair? Newspaper headlines announce lottery winners, regrettably citing many who have lost it all. They have gone from tattered rags to riches to rags once again. The sudden infusion of wealth creates a dramatic life-change that few are prepared to cope with. Still, the monetary reward is notable and can dramatically influence one’s access to materialistic pleasures only dreamt about. But wealth becomes an optical illusion of false hope and false promise. The reality is that, for many, the stupor of wealth does not last but disappears in a rapid, predictable expression of lustful greed and excess.

Unlucky winners often assume a life of regret, declare bankruptcy, or are conveniently murdered for their money. It is a poetry of incredible sadness where fortunes are reversed and upward momentum crashes down. Christopher Carbone’s ‘The curse of winning the lottery’ concludes, “It turns out winning a jackpot of millions or even thousands of dollars can lead to financial ruin – or even death.”

Several recent lottery winners have turned up dead in communities across the country.” Abraham Shakespeare, Jeffrey Dampier, and Doris Murray were among the unfortunates who won the lottery only to be exploited and brutally murdered. Lottery winners may be lucky individuals in an immediate sense, but they are also vulnerable, their once-private lives exposed to opportunistic criminals and pathogens.

Jack Whittaker’s $314.9 million
When Jack Whittaker won the US Powerball jackpot of $314.9, it was the largest jackpot ever won by a single winning ticket in the history of the American lottery. Lucky Whittaker was one of the richest men in history to bank a lottery win, and was worth some $17 million before his winning number came up. But his life began to unravel, not slowly and predictably, but like a massive snowball rolling down a mountain. He abused alcohol, got arrested for drunk driving, and was sued for assault. A thief targeted him and stole $545,000 when they broke into his car outside a West Virginia strip club. His marriage broke up and his drug-addicted granddaughter died of an overdose. Like a tragic Shakespearean play, her mother, Jack’s daughter, died five years later. He was miserable with his sudden wealth, overwhelmed as his life careened out of control. Whittaker lost all of his money just four years after his big win and later told ABC:

“My granddaughter is dead because of the money. 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 … I don’t like the hard heart I’ve got. I don’t like what I’ve become.’

Bud Post’s $40 million
That was how it was for William ‘Bud’ Post. After pawning his ring for $40, Post spent the money on forty Pennsylvania Lottery tickets. His lucky ticket netted him $16.2 million. He soon began to receive the first of his twenty-six annual payments of $497,953.47. Post’s breathtaking experience as a multi-millionaire was both sudden and tragic. At the time of his 1988 winning he was on disability and had a total of $2.46 in his bank account. Five years later, after winning the lottery, Post admitted “Everybody dreams of winning money, but nobody realizes the nightmares that come out of the woodwork, or the problems.”

In a series of macabre events, Post was stalked and hunted like a wounded animal. Ann Karpik, his landlady and former girlfriend, successfully sued him for a third of the jackpot. His brother hired a contract murderer to kill ‘Bud,’ hoping to retrieve a portion of the inheritance. Several of the Post siblings pressured him to invest in sundry business ventures including a car business and a failed Florida restaurant. His sixth wife moved out. After firing a shotgun over the head of a bill collector, Post was jailed for dangerous, erratic behavior. ‘Bud’ Post was $1 million in debt within the year.

Just before his predictable bankruptcy, Post bought a twin-engine plane even though he did not have a pilot’s license. He purchased two homes, two Harley-Davidson motorcycles, a luxury camper, two 62-inch Sony televisions and a $260,000 sailboat that was docked thousands of miles away in Biloxi, Miss. John Lacher, a bankruptcy lawyer who assisted Post observed, “He was like ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ He did everything you would expect of a guy who became a millionaire overnight.”

Post died of respiratory failure in a Seneca, PA hospital. He was 66 years old. Referring to his lottery winnings as the ‘lottery of death’ Post admitted prior to his demise that, “I was much happier when I was broke. I wish it never happened. It was totally a nightmare.” He admitted that he was irresponsible with his winnings as he attempted to please his family members. After declaring bankruptcy, he existed on food stamps and his disability check, a little more than $450 a month. At one point he said, “I’m tired, I’m over 65 years-old and I just had a serious operation for a heart aneurysm. Lotteries don’t mean (anything) to me.”

‘Bud’ Post was not alone in his quest for that magical pot of gold. Even during changing economic times with millions of American workers unemployed and questioning when their next paycheck will arrive, there are those who risk their very survival on instant scratch-off tickets and daily games of chance. The Rockefeller study found that total lottery revenue has climbed steadily since 1992, rising to $17.4 billion in 2007. During that 15-year span, lottery revenue increased most rapidly during the 2001 recession. Some researchers claim that financial insecurity may be tempting more people to risk larger amounts of their survival money in hopes of a huge cash payoff.

State lotteries first emerged in the 1970’s, but recent reports show lottery revenues are decreasing. The Pew Charitable Trusts study found lottery revenue declined in 22 states of the lottery 44 states from 2014 to 2015, attributed to fewer Millennials playing the lottery and to a new phenomenon known as ‘jackpot fatigue,’ where fewer people play until jackpots reach extraordinary levels. In 2016, West Virginia lottery revenue decreased 2.6 percent. In Rhode Island, lottery revenue decreased by 3.2 percent in 2016. In Missouri, lottery revenue was down 3.3 percent in 2015.

Many individuals like ‘Bud’ Post mistakenly equate financial success and material possessions with happiness. Is it because we as a society have defined happiness in terms of lavish materialism and have gradually stepped away from spiritual elements? Is it because we have defined the terms of happiness as being outside ourselves, and have denied each other the true essence of self?

Abraham Shakespeare’s $30 million
On Friday, January 29, 2010, the body of Abraham Shakespeare was discovered. It had been stuffed, like fetid garbage, beneath a 30-by-30 concrete slab in a rural Florida backyard, east of Tampa.

In 2006, Shakespeare had won a $30 million jackpot in the Florida Lottery. It should have been the grandest moment of his life, an opportunity to experience exotic pleasures and visit faraway locations. The lottery winner chose a lump sum payment of nearly $17 million and immediately purchased an opulent million-dollar home in Lakeland, Florida. Three years later he vanished from sight. He had been missing for a period of nine months before detectives found his body in a five – foot grave under a concrete slab.

Shakespeare’s body was discovered behind the two-story ranch house of the boyfriend of Dorice ‘DeeDee’ Moore, 37, who befriended him a year after he won the lottery. Police connected the dots and quickly established a motive. The home had been purchased by Moore and listed in the name of her boyfriend. Moore had also asked an unnamed witness if he knew anyone who was waiting sentencing to prison who would be willing to take the rap for the murder in exchange for $50,000. Moore was charged as an accessory after the fact to first-degree murder.

At the time of his winning, Shakespeare, 43, was employed as an assistant truck driver. He lived with his mother in a rural location east of Tampa. Shakespeare, who had a criminal record, was barely literate. Still, he was extremely generous with his fortune and quickly gave much of it away as people gathered outside his mother’s home, pleading for a portion of the cash and a share of his good fortune.

“I’d have been better off broke,” he told his brother, Robert Brown, on several occasions. Shakespeare’s fate was that of so many others who suffered the curse of newly acquired wealth.

Adolf Merckle’s $9.2 billion
Despite incredible fortune and success, Adolf Merckle, one of the wealthiest businessmen in Germany, was unable to embrace happiness within his vast financial reality.

Merckle had a net worth estimated at almost $9.2 billion dollars. Merckle’s empire included holdings in a diverse range of products including Volkswagen cars, HeidelbergCement, generic-drug maker Ratiopharm and Phoenix Pharmahandel. His vast business empire consisted of 120 companies that employed over 100,000 people. He had been listed as Germany’s fifth richest individual and ranked 94th on Forbes’ listing of the world’s richest individuals. “The desperate situation of his companies, caused by the financial crisis, the uncertainties of the last few weeks and his powerlessness to act, broke the passionate family entrepreneur and he took his own life,” his family said in a prepared statement.

In 2009, German billionaire Merckle, a once-vibrant symbol of Germany’s industrious spirit, threw himself under the wheels of a speeding train. His lifeless mangled body lay on railway tracks at Blaubeuren in southwestern Germany. Merckle, 74, had become depressed after his business empire was devastated by the global financial crisis.

Money cannot buy happiness. Experts agree that if you were unhappy before any lottery winnings you can anticipate that the additional cash flow into your life will not make you any happier. It is a deceptive hoax that preys upon our emptiness and unfulfilled needs. And too, an unexpected windfall of hard cash does not alter one’s basic mindset. One remains who he is, doing what he does to get through the day. Writer Ayn Rand (1905-1982) said, “Money is only a tool. It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver.” In his classic text The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle articulates, “You may win ten million dollars, but that kind of change is no more than skin deep. You would simply continue to act out the same conditioned patterns in more luxurious surroundings.”

Money, used with caution and respect, can provide happiness, security, and peace of mind. Financially secure individuals live longer and healthier lives. Money allows them the luxury to carefully choose their occupation, their place of residence, and ensure the legacy of how their wealth will benefit their family and community. According to financial guru Don McNay, most people who come into sudden money, sports stars included, end up broke. His advice is concise. Take the annuity and invest carefully, he says:

“Real freedom means stability, security and independence. It means never running out of money. It means never having to work at a job you hate, because you can’t afford to quit. It means never becoming a slave to your creditors. It means having control and stability in your life.”

Few things are more tragic than squandering a huge opportunity such as a financial payout. One’s inability to remain centered and grounded is the true cause of misery brought about by sudden allotments of wealth. As reflected in the Beatles’ (Money) “Can’t Buy Me Love,” we realize that money, no matter how plentiful, is not a magical panacea. It is only symbolic of some amorphous, intangible quality. It will not solve life’s emotional, psychological or spiritual problems and it will not bring us closer together. John, Paul, George and Ringo couldn’t have sung it better. Money can’t buy us love, or in this case, happiness.

Maxim W. Furek has a rich background that includes aspects of psychology, addictions, mental health and music journalism. His book The Death Proclamation of Generation X: A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy of Goth, Grunge and Heroin explores the dark marriage between grunge music and the beginning of the opioid crisis. Learn more at www.shepptonmyth.com