Thursday, June 11, 2009


I do not like the Lottery, do not play it, and would joyfully vote to discontinue it, but if someone is going to win it I am glad when it is a person like Neal Wanless, the 23-year old down-on-his-luck cowboy living with his parents in a trailer (the house is in foreclosure) on their 320-acre South Dakota ranch in the seventh poorest area of the country. Wanless bought his $15 worth of tickets in the nearby town of Winner (oh, irony!) during a trip to buy livestock feed. He will take home $88.5 million in a lump sum payment after taxes are deducted.

“Just a very humble, kind and considerate kid,” remembers his high school math teacher. “Neal never gave up trying. That’s what I liked about him” says his cross-country coach. Warner’s father had been eking out a living buying and selling scrap metal, but even that was drying up. A neighbor expressed what seems to be a common sentiment: “They’ve been real short on finances for a long time. They are from real meager means. I am happy the family won’t have to worry about money anymore.”

Well, not so fast. The fact is that lottery winners develop a bunch of worries very quickly. Consider: One in two Winners winds up in financial calamity. Indeed, an entire industry has sprung up to buy future payouts at a discount from Winners so they can pay off the debts they have rolled up. But why do so many get underwater so quickly? There are a number of reasons:

1) Many have lived paycheck to paycheck for so long that they cannot handle having money in hand; their only experience has been spending all they have until the next paycheck. After they hit the lottery jackpot, they do that with their annual payout, and borrow against it too.

2) They are besieged by people asking for help. As one winner recalled about all the relatives who contacted him, “They seemed to come back from the dead. All of them said that the Lord had told them I was their last hope. They just had a way of finding me. I got mail from all over the world, hundreds of letters every day. I had to pay somebody to just read it. At work they had to put in another telephone operator just to handle the calls coming in for me.”

3) They are preyed on by unscrupulous “financial advisors.”

And this is all in addition to the social cost. Lottery winners are always… “Lottery Winners”. People think they are rich and expect them to pay for things that used to be shared expenses. Many family members, friends, and co-workers burn with envy and resentment. At a party once with his wife, a Winner heard someone say in an ugly tone, “There go those lottery people.” In short, because Winners did not “earn” their money, people resent them for having it and expect to be given a share of it. One Winner’s vehicle, business and home were broken into repeatedly. Someone even drugged his drink and stole his briefcase!

All this is simply to say, when you think of the ideal scenario of good fortune smiling upon you, don’t think of winning the lottery. Jesus warns his followers about the power of money because it often brings unforeseen difficulties and temptations into our life. There is a spiritual quality to money for good or ill. Surely we can do better than “winning the lottery” when we envision the ultimate blessing from God.

In closing, say a little prayer for the good-kid cowboy and his parents. They will need it.


Blogger Gavin Sullivan said...

I enjoyed your post, Matt--thanks.

I don't doubt that there are valid reasons for opposing the lottery [and any state-supported gambling] though you haven't provided any persuasive reason for doing so. Wanless participated in a fair game of chance, and won. Do you really think he needs your prayers? What for?

8:21 AM  
Blogger Matt Soper said...

Yes, I did not go into my reasons for opposing the lottery in this essay. Perhaps I will do that in a future post. My reasons for saying that Wanless could use our prayers are threefold, as I stated in my essay: 1) receiving a lump sum of $88m will be an overwhelming experience for him and his parents, who have never had any extra money to speak of. Many lottery winners speak about the huge disorientation they experience going from barely making it to being "financially set for life." 2) They will be solicited for help, handouts, and "family shares" from relatives (real and fraudulent), friends, neighbors, charities, and needy people all over the world; this will elicit a great amount of guilt and moral dilemma: to whom should we give, and who should we turn down? They will also forever more be known by many in their circle as "lottery winners" and many will resent and envy them. They will lose friends, and they will wonder if their new friends are really friends. 3) They will be solicited by financial advisors (real and fraudulent) offering to manage their money. In short, the blessing of financial security and abundance will come with many, many problems and dilemmas. I can't help but think of John Steinbeck's novel The Pearl, where the pearl hunter finds "the pearl of great price" and his life becomes immeasurably more complicated, anxiety prone, and ultimately dangerous. In short, for a man like Wanless, it would probably be better for him to win $500,000 than $88m. The sum he won is too overwhelming and makes him too susceptible to the above problems.

6:55 AM  

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