RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. This past week, life took a dramatic turn for 16 co-workers from a New Jersey town hit hard by Hurricane Sandy last year. The employees of a government garage in Ocean County reportedly have one of three winning tickets in the $448 million Powerball jackpot announced Wednesday.
This year, Americans plunked down more than $68 billion on lottery tickets, which got us wondering not only what it's like to win big but also the strategy involved in getting so many of us to play a game we are so unlikely to win. We'll hear from a lottery winner in a moment. But first, we turn to someone who has made a career of marketing luck. Rebecca Paul Hargrove has been in the lottery business for decades. She's launched successful state lotteries in Florida and Georgia, and she is currently CEO of the Tennessee Education State Lottery Corporation. Hargrove says her competition is anything else a shopper can find at the convenience store counter.
REBECCA PAUL HARGROVE: Well, you have so many discretionary dollars and you have a multitude of choices. You can buy a candy bar or a Coke, a beer, a lottery ticket.
MARTIN: Is there something specific about this particular product? I mean, it's not like selling gum or candy bars. You are essentially selling possibility, a chance to change your life.
HARGROVE: Well, certainly when you look at Powerball and those huge jackpots, you're talking about a chance to change your life. Sometimes - we had a game that was tied to the Tennessee Titans, and you had a chance to win season tickets for 20 years. Now, that doesn't change your life, but there's a waiting list to get season tickets for the Tennessee Titans football team here. So, it's a chance to do something you've always wanted to do that maybe you couldn't do on your own because there is either no season ticket sales available, or because $1,000 a week for life would change your life, or because you want to win $1,000. Because there's some particular thing you want that $1,000 would do for you. So, different games, different prizes; for very small amount of money, you have the chance for something you really want.
MARTIN: There are often media reports about how people's lives can change sometimes not for the better when they've won a really big prize. They can lose all the money, they lose relationships. Do you ever think about them? Do you feel some kind of connection to them? Do you wonder how things went awry?
HARGROVE: Well, I've met hundreds of winners in my almost 30 years in the business, and what I've found is people really don't change much. If they were unhappy before they won, they're still unhappy. If they saved money before they won, they still save money. You know, most winners will buy the house they always wanted, pay off any bills they might have, buy a new car, maybe take the trip to Hawaii or wherever it is they always wanted to go. And then they say to me the best thing about winning is security for their children's future.
MARTIN: There is also criticism out there that says the lottery is preying on lower income population, people who don't necessarily have the money that they are shelling out to play the lottery over and over again. Do you hear that a lot?
HARGROVE: I think that is one of the myths that has been perpetrated year after year after year after year. Let's just take Tennessee. We did close to $1.4 billion last year. There are about six million people in the state. And you take the number of people over the age of 18 and divide it into a billion-four, and it just can't be poor people who are buying; it just - the numbers don't work. People from all walks of life buy tickets.
MARTIN: Why is this such a universal, do you think?
HARGROVE: Well, the last Gallup poll I read said that 76 percent of the population of the United States thought a lottery was a responsible way to raise needed revenues, as opposed to raising your taxes. And it's a fun way to raise those needed revenues.
MARTIN: In many states lottery revenues are earmarked for education. Is that how the money actually gets spent?
HARGROVE: Well, in the states where it goes to education, absolutely. But it funds different types of education. In Illinois, the common school fund went to K through 12 education. And sometimes, as has been the case in other states where dollars went to K through 12 education, they became replacement dollars rather than enhancement dollars. In 1992, when then-governor Zell Miller ran for governor, he wanted to bring a lottery to Georgia that made a difference. That was the beginning of what is now very famous, and that's Hope Scholarships. You graduate from a Georgia high school with a B average, and the lottery pays your way to school, tuition, books and fees. So, when Tennessee started their lottery 10 years ago, and they saw what a difference it made in higher education in Georgia, they copied the Georgia model. So it's pretty special.
MARTIN: Rebecca Hargrove, president and CEO of the Tennessee Education Lottery. It's been so fun talking to you. Thank you so much.
HARGROVE: Well, thank you.