This short post by Alex Tabarrok is well worth thinking about….
The rags to riches to rags story of a poor, unemployed fellow who wins the lottery, blows the cash, and ends up just as poor and unemployed as he began is a common trope. (Here is a classic in the genre). In a paper just published in the Review of Economics and Statistics (gated, free version here), Hankins, Hoekstra and Skiba argue that the rags to riches to rags story has a systematic component.
The authors link records of lottery winners to bankruptcy records. The use of the lottery is a great randomization device, although obviously it restricts the sample to people who play the lottery.
The central finding is this: people who win large amounts are just as likely to end up bankrupt as people who win small amounts. People who win a large amount, $50,000 to $150,000, have a lower bankruptcy rate immediately after winning but a higher bankruptcy rate a few years later so the 5-year bankruptcy rate for the big winners is no lower than for the small winners. Amazingly, by the time the big winners do go bankrupt their assets and debts are not significantly different from those of the small winners. The big winners who ended up bankrupt could have paid off all of their debts but chose not to.
N.B. the result is not that most lottery winners go bankrupt or that winning money doesn’t help people–the result, as Robin Hanson might say, is that bankruptcy isn’t about money.