Rich get richer, the poor play Lotto

– Published in Sun Publications October 23, 2002
By Tom Parisi

Every so often, when I’m feeling psychic, I plunk down a few bucks on the Illinois Lottery. I’ll play my kids’ birthdays and dream about what to do with mounds of money.

It’s a nice daydream for a dollar. But I don’t play the lottery with any regularity. That’s because the logical side of me knows that it’s among the biggest rip-offs on the planet. If you’re going to risk losing money, you’re better off rolling the dice on the riverboats, picking a pony at the OTB or investing in Enron.

No gambler worth his salt would regularly play the lottery. The house edge is just too outrageous. The odds of matching six numbers on a $1 ticket in the Lotto game are more than 10 million to one, according to the Illinois Lottery’s Web site. That’s a mind-boggling edge when you consider that the Lotto game starts out with a minimum jackpot of $2 million.

Sometimes numbers are so big that they’re hard to grasp. So I asked Matt Baron, a friend of mine who free-lances for the likes of Time magazine and Sports Illustrated for Kids, to put some perspective on the figure 10 million. Aside from his free-lancing, Baron trains writers in how to use numbers effectively. (If you’re interested in this, check out www.mattbaron.com.)

If you counted one second at a time to 10 million, Baron points out, it would take 115 days. Imagine trying to pick one jackpot-winning second out of your life over the past four months.

Or imagine a phone book with 10 million names. The book would be too big to be practical, so Baron suggests dividing it up. With 50 names on a page, you would need 500 phone books, each 400 pages long.

Ten million – get the picture.

Even with the smaller Lotto prizes, the house edge is enormous. To match five numbers and win an average prize of just $1,000, the odds are one in 36,881. To match three numbers and win a mere $3, the odds are one in 34. It’s no wonder I end up kicking myself after losing at the lottery. It’s not because I dropped a buck or two, but because I know I was taken. What’s worse, I’ve always felt that the lottery preys on the poor. I said as much in a column several years ago, when the Big Game jackpot was pushing $400 million. It never fails that whenever lottery fever hits, long lines of customers stretch out the doors of convenience stores and gas stations in blue-collar urban areas. Even the unemployed will scrape up enough money for a chance to dream that their problems will disappear overnight.

We never see long lottery lines in well-to-do neighborhoods such as Barrington, Glenview or Wilmette, or even Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles, for that matter. People of means don’t need pipe dreams.

A new analysis by The Chicago Reporter better proves my point about the lottery and the poor. The newspaper found that predominantly African American or Latino low-income Chicago communities have generated the highest lottery sales in the state.

And despite the state’s recent economic woes, lottery spending has increased, the Reporter found. The story included quotes from regular lottery players, including a laid-off laborer who said he spent about $25 a day on tickets. Really, what kind of society dangles the illusion of a pot of gold in front of desperate people who desperately want to improve their lot in life?

What’s more, the amount of lottery revenues distributed to school districts has nothing to do with how much their communities spend on the game. So in essence, the state takes from the poor and gives to the rich and middle-class. School leaders in areas that generate the highest lottery sales rightly feel they should get a bigger slice of the lottery revenue pie.

A better solution would be to get rid of the lottery altogether. Chances are remote, because it has been a cash cow for the state for nearly three decades. If I could handicap the chances of that day arriving – the day we eliminate the lottery – I’d place the odds at about, say, 10 million to one.

OK, so it might happen sometime over the next 27,400 years.