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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.

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