Despite Billion-Dollar Jackpots, Critics Say the Lottery Is a Losing Game : Consider This from NPR Admit it - you've fantasized about what you would do if you hit the lottery and exactly how you would spend your millions - or billions.

Spending a few dollars for a chance at a massive jackpot seems irresistible. Roughly half of all Americans buy at least one lottery ticket per year, despite the nearly impossible odds of winning. But some people take it much further.

Unlike casino games and sports betting, messaging around playing the lottery can make it seem much less like actual gambling and more like a fun way to chase a dream of luxury and wealth.

But some critics feel that the lottery uses predatory practices to disproportionately target low-income communities and people of color.

Host Michel Martin talks to Jonathan D. Cohen, author of For a Dollar and a Dream: State Lotteries In Modern America.

NPR reporter Jonathan Franklin contributed to this episode.

Despite Billion-Dollar Jackpots, Critics Say the Lottery Is a Losing Game

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JOHN CROW: What's up, America? I'm John Crow, and it's Friday, January 13. And today's Mega Billions jackpot is an estimated annuitized $1.35 billion. To win that jackpot, you must match these fine wine balls, plus that gold mega ball. Now, let's see if I can make you a billionaire tonight.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's face it, just about everybody at some point fantasizes about winning the lottery, especially, you know, a really big one. Last week, some lucky player or players in Lebanon, Maine - they've yet to be identified - won that $1.35 billion, the second largest in jackpot history. And over the years, plenty of others have won smaller amounts.

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JESSICA MACARONE: Are you kidding me?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You just won $2 million.

MACARONE: You're kidding me.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No way.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What? What? What? What? What?

MARTIN: Which might make you feel like you have a shot, but - and sorry to be a buzzkill here - it's actually nearly impossible. But despite the daunting odds, there are lots of people who chase that dream, regularly buying Mega Millions, Powerball or instant scratch-off tickets. In fact, roughly half of all Americans buy at least one lottery ticket a year.

TIMOTHY FONG: In my mind, just the lottery as a presence in popular culture in America I don't think gets nearly enough attention by all of us. I mean, it's kind of, like, embedded in our lives.

MARTIN: Dr. Timothy Fong is a professor of psychiatry and co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program. He says that because the idea of the lottery is so much a part of the culture, a lot of people don't even think of it as gambling the way they do, say, a casino or wagering on sports.

FONG: I think if you ask most people, they'll say - is a lottery a form of gambling? I think most people will say, well, maybe. I'm not sure. Or they'll say, but it's not as dangerous as, say, slots or it doesn't convey the same sense of loss and potential risk as sports.

MARTIN: Dr. Fong says the additional messaging from state lotteries - that the money provides funds for important causes like schools and services for the elderly - helps sell the lottery as a societal good, not a societal harm. And he goes on to say that that messaging helps convince people that they're not losing money. They're helping fund important social services.

FONG: If I just said, OK, schools need money, we need you to give $300 extra of your income every year to help the kids, would you do it? But instead, if you said, hey, whatever you spend on this activity, whether it's the lottery - it's going to go to schools, so that's a good thing, right? And then if you had any doubts about gambling, you'd be like, that's OK because it's for the kids. But again, every single state - you look at state budgets of schools versus what they actually generate from lotteries - there's no state that I'm aware of that generates more than a couple percent of their school budget from the lotteries. So this is not a major contributor.

MARTIN: Dr. Fong says because it's harder to connect lotteries to gambling, it's harder to associate playing the lottery with addiction where appropriate.

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ARPLATINUM: What up YouTube? ARPLATINUM - it's the end of the chase, and we get wins on every ticket. Stick around to find out just how well we did. Let's go.

MARTIN: Aaron (ph), who declined to give his last name for reasons of privacy, hosts a YouTube channel as ARPLATINUM. He has a little over 100,000 subscribers who watch him buy hundreds, even thousands of dollars worth of scratch-off tickets every day. Sometimes he wins money. Usually, though, he doesn't.

ARPLATINUM: Last year, I spent $149,935 on lottery tickets - $150,000. Now, we got back 117, so we lost 33,000. But I mean, that's more than I think what - you know, the average is close to probably what the average person makes a year, 33,000.

MARTIN: Aaron acknowledges that he is, in fact, a professional gambler. Scratching off instant lottery tickets is his full-time job. But he stresses that he makes his profit through ad revenues and sponsors, not through winning tickets. And while his main goal is entertainment, he says he hopes that he's also helping people with gambling addictions by letting them know that winning big is rare.

ARPLATINUM: You know, I put all that information out there. You could win, but the odds of it happening are so minuscule. It's tough. And if I wasn't making the money that I make, there is no way I would do this. You know, I'd be playing a couple $5 tickets a month because it's crazy.

MARTIN: CONSIDER THIS - for some people, the idea of winning the lottery is more than just a daydream. It can feel like a goal that's just a drawing or a scratch ticket away. The lottery having become a pop culture mainstay and the messaging about how it helps pay for important civic needs makes playing the lottery feel, well, fun and even righteous. But is it? Could the lottery, the everywhere-all-the-time lottery, be doing more harm than good?

FONG: No one ever questions the lottery's integrity 'cause it's run by states, but no one ever questions, well, what about folks who are somehow damaged by the lottery? Are they owed anything back?

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MARTIN: When we return.

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MARTIN: From NPR, I'm Michel Martin. It's Saturday, January 21.

FONG: I think what we're talking about are, you know, gambling industry practices that are clearly designed to take advantage of vulnerable or at-risk communities.

MARTIN: Psychiatrist Dr. Timothy Fong is co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program. He says playing the lottery is no different than playing a casino slot machine, where luck is the only deciding factor and the odds are stacked against you. And he says that lottery players, just like people who play the slots, can become addicted.

FONG: So in our state of California, the lottery is the No. 4 form of gambling that's reported that people are having problems getting addicted to, the No. 1 being slot machines and No. 2 being table games and No. 3 being, like, things like poker. And the patients I've had who've run into trouble with the lottery - scratchers, instant lottery, spending 40, 50, 60 bucks a day, incurring the same kind of damage and harm in their lives, and that's all lottery.

MARTIN: But unlike casinos, lottery and scratch-off tickets are available everywhere, from corner stores to vending machines at the grocery store. And Dr. Fong says that people of color are disproportionately exposed.

FONG: We do know that Asian communities tend to have higher-than-expected rates of gambling participation and gambling addiction inside the Asian communities. Disproportionately, there's a lot more gambling advertising and a lot more gambling industry presence inside those Asian communities. And then there are others - you know, stories like that where we hear, you know, people saying disproportionate liquor stores in African American communities or impoverished communities, and every single one of those liquor stores sell the lottery. I mean, clearly, the liquor stores were set up first, and then the lotteries fell into it. But every liquor store owner could have made a decision to say, I'm not going to sell the lottery. Why are you selling this? Is this - why are you selling a potentially addictive product that we know doesn't generate wealth or income for anybody?

MARTIN: Activist Les Bernal says the problem is serious, helping perpetuate cycles of poverty for low-income communities and people of color.

LES BERNAL: I think that state lotteries are the most neglected example of systemic racism in the United States than any other issue or problem, I should say, in our country.

MARTIN: Bernal is the national director for Stop Predatory Gambling. He says that lotteries blatantly target low-income neighborhoods.

BERNAL: Just in the last couple of months, the state of Texas is going to market a $100 scratch ticket to citizens in a state where people make $7.25 an hour. OK, think about it. You got to work two days. And these lottery outlets are disproportionately constructed and marketed to in low-income communities. Like, it's not even close. Every street - I come from the poorest community in Massachusetts. Every street corner has a lottery outlet. And you go to a neighboring community that's much more middle class or upper class. There's almost no lottery outlets in these places. So you don't even need to speculate who state lotteries are targeting. But the idea that, you know, we're having this national debate on how to, you know, shrink the wealth inequality, you know, how to reduce the debt of everyday low-income citizens. And here you have the public voice of government. This government program is essentially exploiting, extracting all this wealth out of low-income communities.

MARTIN: Bernal says that since there is virtually no chance of coming out ahead, the lottery is akin to a massive transfer of wealth that rarely benefits those in need.

BERNAL: And it's all going to go in the hands of one person, you know, who's going to win. So success comes at the expense of everybody else. And meanwhile, like, you have middle-class people, upper-class folks that - they don't even buy the lottery tickets. I mean, they rarely, if ever, buy a lottery ticket, right? So they're taking their weekly paycheck, and they're investing in college funds for their kids. They have an emergency fund. They're are saving for retirement, you know, saving for a house and so on. And half the country has virtually no assets whatsoever. And that's who they market these lottery games to. So, you know, everyone's focused on, you know, how to reduce people's debt. We completely ignore the massive role that state lotteries play in this. Over the next eight years, the American people are going to lose more than $1 trillion of personal wealth to government-sanctioned gambling. So that includes state lotteries, which are the bedrock of that. They're the biggest portion of that.

MARTIN: Coming up, how the lottery works and why it's really time to accept that you are never, ever going to win. That's when we return.

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JONATHAN COHEN: For the record, the only reason I'm here is because I did not win that $1.3 billion.

MARTIN: That's Jonathan Cohen being brutally honest about why he was available for our interview. Cohen is the author of "For a Dollar And A Dream: State Lotteries In Modern America." And he says we need to take a closer look at what our love of lotteries says about the real chances of upward mobility in America right now. So I started our conversation by asking a question I think a lot of us have wondered, which is, why are jackpots suddenly so big?

COHEN: Right. So this happened, as you may remember, as recently as November, right? There was the largest jackpot in U.S. history, $2 billion Powerball drawing. And there's two real factors that have contributed to the growth of jackpots in recent years. The first is that in 2012, Powerball and Mega Millions, which are the multistate lottery games - they doubled the price of tickets. So they went from being $1 tickets to $2 tickets. And a share of every ticket goes into the top prize. You know, and then all of a sudden, now the jackpots are getting at twice as big as they used to be. And then the other factor is that the odds have just been made worse and worse and worse. And lottery associations, state lottery commissions have realized correctly that people don't care about the odds of winning. They just care about how big the jackpot is.

MARTIN: Interesting.

COHEN: And it's really hard to tell the difference between a $4 million - 1 in 4 million, 1 in 40 million, 1 in 400 million odds of winning. But it's really easy to tell the difference between a $4 million, $40 million or $400 million jackpot.

MARTIN: And so eventually, people seem to win at - you know, at some point. But what is the actual probability of buying that winning ticket?

COHEN: So for Mega Millions, the odds of winning are one in 302 million, which for reference is roughly the equivalent of taking an ant, putting it onto two football fields and stabbing a needle into the ground and hitting an ant - and hitting an ant.

MARTIN: (Laughter). But as you point out, people are still going to buy these tickets.

COHEN: Yes because as the saying goes - and this is the longtime tagline for the New York lottery - somebody's got to win. Might as well be me.

MARTIN: Well, so I just want to get to the substance of your book. You've been interested in the history of lotteries in the United States, you know, for some time. I don't want to be a buzzkill, but the point that you make in your book is that people play these lotteries because they do think they're going to win. They kind of know they're not going to, but they think they might. I guess the question, the blunt question is here is, who's actually supporting these lotteries? Like, who are the people who generally participate?

COHEN: Yeah. So 50% of Americans buy a lottery ticket once a year. And a lot of those people are buying them in weeks like this one. You know, when the jackpot gets big, they put down their $2 for the whole year, and then they call it a day. But 1 in 8 Americans buys a lottery ticket at least once a week. And from that group, you know, 20 to 30% of total lottery players account for as much as 70 to 80% of total lottery sales. And it may come as no surprise that that group is disproportionately lower income, nonwhite, less educated and male. And that's where, you know, the bulk of lottery sales are really coming from.

MARTIN: And is the - and the logic of it here is that it's what? Like, why are these - is this so attractive to a particular group of people?

COHEN: Right. So I argue that the lottery is unlike other forms of gambling in that it represents social mobility and that lots of Americans for - as you say, you know, this has been a phenomenon for centuries. And lotteries are older than the country itself, you know, in North America. But even going back to the 17th century, Americans have turned to gambling and to lotteries in particular as their last, best or only chance at a new life. And especially for those who are marginalized by the traditional economy or who perceive that they don't have any chance of getting out and getting up and getting a new life through entrepreneurship or through hard work, the odds are distant, and the odds are crazy. But it's not that hard to understand why they might be willing to take a chance and hope against all hope that a lottery is going to be their financial salvation.

MARTIN: But the argument has - and there has been resistance to the legalization of lotteries and the spread of them because people have argued that this is actually a tax on poor people. But the argument has been that the benefits outweigh that reality in that the revenue generated from lotteries is - kind of supports schools and public health and things of that sort. So I guess the hard question to you is, is that really true?

COHEN: That is a hard question. Technically, on paper, lotteries do support the causes they claim they are supporting. The share of state budgets or local budgets that come from lotteries is very, very small, you know, much smaller than lottery commissions would have you believe. And in many cases, in states like New York and Florida, there have been this sort of mathematical sleights of hand where every dollar that goes into the education budget doesn't - from the lottery doesn't really add to the education budget. It just replaces a dollar from the normal appropriation. So it supplants, rather than supplements, standard education. But, of course, the lottery commission just wants to tell you all the good it's doing for education so that you'll go keep buying more and more tickets.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, Jonathan, in a way, it seems like this argument is the same, a similar argument to the ones that we have about, like, sports stadia, right? Which is that people say that it's going to provide these benefits. But does it really? At the end of the day - I don't know. I don't - again, I want to be a buzzkill. But is there a kind of an ethical problem here that it actually draws from a certain population that can perhaps afford it less than others, and it doesn't necessarily benefit them? And in a way, you could argue, is it a distraction against harder conversations about inequality in this country and the inability of using other mechanisms to improve your life?

COHEN: Right. And I think you've touched on sort of the - two of the big questions here, one of which is, is the operation of a gambling game, you know, a lottery - is that befitting of a state government? Is this really what we want government to do? And government, which has the role, the mandate to serve the common good - does it sort of fall into this portfolio of serving the common good to entice people to gamble, in particular lower income and nonwhite people? I don't think so. But, you know, what do I know? I only wrote a book on the subject. I'll let folks sort of make this - make that judgment for themselves. And then the other question - I think you're exactly right - is - and this is hard to quantify, but if the lottery didn't exist or wasn't at this scale, maybe would people be more willing to think about social mobility, about inequality in a different way than they do now?

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MARTIN: That was Jonathan D. Cohen. He is the author of "For A Dollar And A Dream: State Lotteries In Modern America." Reporter Jonathan Franklin contributed to this episode. It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Michel Martin.

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