Menus Subscribe Search
lottery-ticket

(PHOTO: ROBERT LESSMANN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Lorde Knows Why Poor People Play the Lottery

• December 11, 2013 • 3:59 PM

(PHOTO: ROBERT LESSMANN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

On the eve of a monster MegaMillions draw, here’s another explanation of why those who can least afford it play the lottery: It helps them blow off steam.

This Friday the 13th will see the draw for the second-largest MegaMillions pot in the lottery game’s history. No tickets in the 45 U.S. states that are part of the pooled playing area have matched all five numbers in the last 20 tries, and so the advertised prize is now $400 million. (The actual take-home amount would be $216 million after Uncle Sam takes a share. Compare that to the 259-million-to-one odds of winning and you’re still in the hole a bit.)

The biggest MegaMillions jackpot of all time was $656 million in March 2012, and that’s the biggest lottery pot of all time in the U.S. The Powerball game has had three jackpots between that amount and $400 million just in the last two years. All of those take a backseat to Spain’s Christmas lottery, the Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad. Last year its main prize was just shy of $1 billion.

Around this time there’s always a lot of hand-wringing over the poor playing the lottery since being poor, they’re the least able to afford throwing what money they do have away. Since lotteries are pretty much a state-run enterprise, we’re told the game constitutes “a hidden tax on the poor.”

By the same token, the chance to not be poor in one fell swoop exerts a very real attraction—I like to think of it as deux ex lottery machinaand what’s the harm of a small splurge? Those, by the way, sum up the two traditional academic ways of examining the why the poor play—either it’s the only rational way to ever get out of poverty, or it demonstrates how lousy we are at understanding odds.

Perhaps if it was just a small splurge, there would be less hand-wringing. In fact, the poor spend a greater proportion of their income on lotteries than do the better off. (Of course, the mere fact of being poor suggests they spend a greater proportion of their income on just about everything relative to the well-off.) But they also spend more in absolute terms, as outlined in a new paper that seeks sociological reasons in addition to cognitive ones to explain why the poor play the lottery:

According to a national survey, households in the USA spend annually around $162 on lottery tickets, with low-income households spending around $289. These figures are double for those households who play lottery at least once a year; and for lottery players on incomes of less than $10,000 there is a per capita spending of $597. Demand for lottery tickets correlates not only with levels of income but also with a general lower socio-economic status as measured by lower educational levels, employment status and membership in an ethnic minority group.

In the new paper appearing in the journal Sociology, Jens Beckert and Mark Lutter of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies find data-based evidence from Lotto players in Germany for the intuitively attractive “strain” theory of play: If your life is crummy and you know it and you don’t feel in control, buying a dream with your lottery tickets reduces tension.

“Fantasy worlds stemming from the purchase of lottery tickets are comparatively cheap,” the authors write. “Lower social strata are excluded from most other ‘evocative’ consumer goods that also create dream worlds, for example status goods such as fine clothing, wines or luxury cars.” Isn’t that what Kiwi troubadour Lorde has been trying to tell us all summer: “We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.”

There’s a wealth of interview-based sociology bearing this out, but Beckert and Lutter conducted a nationwide survey to add quantitative rigor to those earlier qualitative findings. Playing Lotto helps us blow off steam. And here’s what else their survey confirmed: Income (low), age (middle), education (low), cohabitation (living together), and ethnicity (minority) were all predictors of greater lottery play, as was being bummed out or fatalistic. In the dry language of social science, “dissatisfaction is significantly related to lottery expenditure.”

There’s another major cultural driver—social contagion. If your friends or family are routinely playing, you probably will too. And if they spend a lot when they do play, you’re also likely to double down. And if friends or co-workers are pooling their purchases, you’re likely to chip in, too. Although I’ve always joined pools because I didn’t want to be the guy sitting there when everyone else conga-ed out the door to their new cars, the authors suggest the real attraction is being part of the team. “As a group activity, the utility of a shared lottery ticket is not defined primarily by the expected monetary return from a ticket – although in the minds of the players winning remains an evoked possibility – but by the secondary social effects which evolve from membership in the informal group.”

If we’re going to be poor, let’s be poor together. To quote Lorde again: “And we’ll never be royals. It don’t run in our blood/That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.”

And if we’re going to be rich, let’s be rich together. “Let me live that fantasy.”

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.