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Here's who really wins and loses in American lotteries

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, yesterday's Friday the 13 drawing became one lottery player's lucky night. In the small town of Lebanon, Maine, a lottery player became a billionaire overnight after winning the Mega Millions jackpot of approximately $1.35 billion, one of the biggest in jackpot history. Winning the lottery is a dream to millions, a nearly impossible one to be sure, but almost irresistible to many of us, those huge jackpots becoming a news story and an opportunity to think of a different life, one filled with luxury, philanthropy, ease. But historian Jonathan D. Cohen, author of "For A Dollar And A Dream: State Lotteries In Modern America," says maybe we should think a little harder about what our love of lotteries says about the real chances of upward mobility in America right now. And he is with us now to tell us more. Jonathan D. Cohen, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JONATHAN D COHEN: Thanks for having me. And for the record, the only reason I'm here is because I did not win that $1.3 billion.

MARTIN: Oh, dear. Well, I think I can speak for all of us when I say that is true for everybody here. So with that being said, can I just ask a couple of other sort of mechanics questions? Why are these jackpots so big now? I mean, this is like, I think, the second-largest Mega Millions jackpot in history. It's like the third largest in history overall. Like, what's the story here? How is this happening?

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 multi-state 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 are - 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 - but eventually people seem to win, 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 the 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. Who is actually - I guess the question, the blunt question here's who's actually supporting these lotteries? 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, non-white, 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 - is 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 in 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 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: Well, you know, you make the point that this occasionally does happen, that there is an early example of the lottery's dramatic social leveling was the case of Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man in South Carolina who actually purchased his freedom in 1799 after winning $1,500 in a local lottery, which is something I confess I did not know. 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 are - 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 sleight 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 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, is there - I don't know. Again, don't 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 non-white 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 people would be more willing to think about social mobility, about inequality in a different way than they do now.

MARTIN: That's Jonathan D. Cohen, author of "For A Dollar And A Dream: State Lotteries In Modern America." Professor Cohen, thanks so much for talking to us.

COHEN: Thanks. Good luck, everyone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.