The Incredible Absurdity of How We Award Lottery Jackpots

Jim Fonseca
4 min readJul 30, 2022
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You’ve probably heard that Mega Millions has a billion-dollar jackpot as of the end of July 2022. Do you have your ticket yet? (I do!) We’ve all heard the old joke that a lottery is a tax on people who aren’t good at math. That may be true, so let’s see if we can help some of these folks out.

I won’t belabor the point I made in the title for this post, so let’s just consider this chart:

Calculations by the author

Given that a lot of folks who buy lottery tickets could actually use the money, consider that instead of creating another billionaire, we could help out 100,000 people with $10,000. They could use it to pay down debt, for college tuition, to buy a new (used) car or to pay next month’s rent. Then consider that in most cases we are helping out 100,000 families not just 100,000 individuals.

One study found that the highest rate of lottery gambling was among those in the lowest fifth of socio-economic groups. (61% of that group buys tickets.) A NY Times article (from 2010) said “Some estimates suggest that more than 80 percent of lottery revenue comes from households making less than $50,000 a year — the very people who have the hardest time saving. In fact, 38 percent of people earning less than $25,000 a year think the lottery is the most practical way they’ll accumulate a few hundred thousand dollars in their lifetimes, according to the Consumer Federation of America.”

Many lottery ticket aficionados are the same folks within the group of 47% of Americans who can’t easily come up with $500 for an emergency.

What does our society gain by creating another billionaire? Or even 1,000 millionaires — compared to the value of helping out 100,000 people, let’s say half of whom are struggling financially?

What prevents us from changing the rules of the game?

I know the answer: the lottery administrators and the state legislatures who are addicted to the flow of money that comes in as revenue. They will say “What you don’t understand, Jim…” (that’s me) “is that the big money rolls in when we have a big jackpot. That’s why there’s a…

Jim Fonseca

Geography professor (retired) writes The One Minute Geographer featuring This Fragile Earth. Top writer in Transportation and, in past months, Travel.