Windfalls- the pitfalls and opportunities of unexpected money.
One third of lottery winners file for bankruptcy after blowing their winnings, ending up in even worse financial shape than before. Lottery winners are much more likely to go broke than those that don't win, which raises the question- Huh? Too much money all at once can actually be worse than too little. I call this the windfall effect. Dolly Levi, from Hello Dolly famously said that "money is like manure, it's not worth a thing unless it's spread around encouraging young things to grow." A sudden windfall of money is like dumping a truckload of manure on a tiny garden plot- it kills the flowers and most of it ends up washing away with the rain. Better yet- smart, strategic doses of money (or manure) can be more powerful and effective.
Financial windfalls, or unexpected pots of spendable money, tend to bring out the worst in people, and for the unprepared they can be disastrous. I say this as the St. Louis area prepares to enjoy a huge financial windfall of its own:
- Close to one billion dollars in American Rescue Plan (ARPA) money, meant to repair damage done by Covid-19,
- An estimated $8 Billion allocated to the state of Missouri by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,
- And a $790 Million settlement against Stan Kroenke and the Rams that the area gets to split up after the lawyers take their cut.
This pot of money is potentially game changing for the St. Louis area. Used wisely, it could transform the city into a more inviting and attractive place, multiplying its effects with every year. But if it's wasted, it's gone forever, along with a once-in-a-generation chance to make a difference. One of the reasons that many lottery winners end up broke or unhappy is that the money makes them overconfident and short-sighted, while at the same time attracting any number of friends, relatives, and scam artists looking to share in the good fortune. Because this money was seen as "unearned", our brain's mental accounting system treats it less carefully than money from a paycheck. But money is money no matter how we come about it, and it's our challenge in life to use it wisely, compassionately, and responsibly.
St. Louis has one huge disadvantage in dealing with a windfall like this- our divided systems of government. The city will get one pot of money, the county another, the state another, Metro-East another, and municipalities still more. Fallible, corruptible, all-too-human politicians will be tasked with disposing of this money, and you can bet all sorts of lobbyists will have suggestions on what to do with it. This is where we need Greater St. Louis Inc to lead the way in partnership with Mayor Jones and County Executive Page.
Greater St. Louis Inc, in only its second year of existence, is a group of civic leaders from the region that was created last year from the merger of such groups as Downtown STL, Civic Progress, and the St. Louis Regional Chamber. They appear to be the only group in town that can come up with a unified strategy for the windfall, and I encourage them to think outside of the box on what could make the most difference for St. Louis 20 or 30 years from now.
The Covid epidemic has provided us with a lot of this money, but it has also given us something else- a chance to step back and reset. Being thrown from our routines forced us to look at where we are and where we'd like to be. That's why so many people are leaving jobs that weren't working for them and exploring their limits and interests. The same reset opportunity exists for companies, governments, and nations.
Some people fervently believe that spending government money is inherently bad. That's only half true. Wasting government money is bad but investing it in something that will pay off later is not only good, it's essential, because only government has the luxury of the long-term perspective.
So instead of spending the windfall, let's look to investing it. And for that I use Dolly Levi's manure as a guide. Where are the bottlenecks? Where are the things that are ready and able to grow and spread the most good? I think of things like:
- Preventative health care
- Crime prevention
- Children and education
- Startup businesses
- Affordable housing
- Immigration and tourism
Tackling any one of these areas and making our region a leader and innovator would be transformational. Fixing our roads, bridges and infrastructure is way overdue and will improve things more than we can imagine. Making our neighborhoods safer, more affordable, and more inviting could attract new people and businesses. Focusing more on children's health and development will pay off the most, because they literally are the future. Let's make Silent Stan sorry he ever left here, and build a better future with the money he's sending us.