By Leah Muncy 7-31-2019
One of my earliest memories is of my mother buying a lottery ticket. We’re at a supermarket counter in rural California, she holds a $5 bill between two long fingernails. “Five SuperLotto Quick Picks,” she says to the cashier. He gives her a ticket the color of an orange creamsicle. She folds it into her wallet, between receipts and the bills.
When I was young, my mother was always talking about the “lotto.” Around the kitchen table, she’d tell me and my older brother what she’d do with the millions: buy a large farm with chickens, fly us to Mexico, solar-panel the roof.
One afternoon in first grade my mother surprised me by picking me up early from school. I had never left school early before, and I knew something big must have happened. There was only one possibility in my mind — that we’d won the lottery. I skipped down the linoleum-floored hallway to the office where she was signing the paperwork to take me home. In the car I asked her if it was really true: Had we won? No, my mother said. Dad and I are getting a divorce.
I imagine that my mother probably thought about winning the lottery so much because she was a stay-at-home mom during my early childhood. She’d been thinking about going back to college to get her teaching credential, and she’d need money. Or maybe she played because she sensed the imminence of divorce. At a pool party, a friend had told her that someone he knew had won enough to move to Hawaii. I picture my mother outstretched on a lawn chair, looking over her dark sunglasses, listening. “That’s when I really started playing,” she told me during my last visit home. “That kind of made it real. Like a real possibility.”
Despite the one-in-292-million odds of winning the multi-state Powerball jackpot (you have a greater chance of dying from a falling coconut, which is one in 250 million), Americans spent $71.8 billion on lottery tickets in 2017. The bulk of this revenue was generated by the largest consumers of lottery tickets, who also happen to be the poorest Americans. According to a 2004 study conducted by Cornell University professor Garrick Blalock, the lottery is most aggressively advertised in impoverished communities, particularly minority and rural white neighborhoods. The predation of the lottery on the financially insecure leads to what Blalock calls the desperation hypothesis: those in the direst of financial circumstances turn to the lottery as “a hail-mary strategy.” It is a source of hope for those in despair, for those who dream of escaping their social class. Read more.