We Sold A Winner

After years of listening to working people, Studs Terkel, the great oral historian concluded they are “searching for daily meaning as much as their daily bread”. Since 2010, I have traveled across twenty-nine American states, listening to workers caught in the wake of a lottery jackpot most say would “solve all their problems”. Before lifting my camera lens, I spend time talking with store owners, clerks and customers, who inevitably begin by discussing “what I would do if I had that money.”

With their words and my photographs, this project represents a portrait of the places and people driving the enormous state lottery economy. In 2015, Americans spent over $71 billion hoping to become the next millionaire. “If I won, I wouldn’t have to struggle.” Instant scratch tickets are the biggest sellers and when the multi-state games, Powerball and MegaMillions climb above $300, $400 or $500 million, hourly media coverage fuels a buying frenzy. As one new player expressed, “I want to be part of the country!” With lines out the door, owners must hire extra clerks to run the lottery machines. Their hourly wages often cost more than the penny or nickel the state pays an owner per ticket sold. On line, regular players range from the most economically challenged members of the community to middle class workers using a monthly or weekly lottery allowance. Despite ridiculous odds most say, “I just want to get lucky like those other people.”

With the help of Google alert, I follow this trail of winning jackpots ($1 million to $529 million) back to the small family stores where the ticket was sold. Road trips wind across many states, lasting one or two months, allowing multiple days at each location. I have witnessed first hand the hometown banter and fellowship that is the backbone of customer loyalty. Shop owners, managers and clerks are well versed in the names and relationships of everyone who walks through their door. Regulars come for conversation, counsel and the comfort that accompanies familiarity. “When they leave they feel like someone and have a good feeling about the store.” On the walls, in between lottery tickets and signage, are family mementos and photographs along with flags from many countries. Owners and clerks represent working America: some are immigrants, making their way in a foreign land, while others are the second, third and even fourth generation to live and work in the neighborhood.

Small family run convenience and liquor stores are the largest retailers of lottery tickets across the country. Rather than raise taxes on those at the top, legislators in forty-four states depend on lottery revenue to prop up shrinking state budgets. When I hear people call lottery players stupid or reference the lottery as a tax on the poor, I think about the many hard working Americans I’ve met, caught up in the conundrum that “you can’t win if you don’t play” and “the house always wins.” I seek to evoke greater empathy for the resilient, yet often invisible workers at the heart of lottery America.