MarketWatch: Mega Millions is now over $1.2 billion because Americans need hope, says lottery expert

The lottery is capturing Americans’ imagination just as our money lives go haywire.

That’s probably not a coincidence, says lottery historian Jonathan Cohen. In a time of high inflation, it makes sense to think that money can “move around seemingly without any real connection to what’s happening in the real world,” he told MarketWatch.

The drawing for a Mega Millions jackpot of at least $1.2 billion is on Friday. The odds this time are worse than one in 300 million. Still, plenty of people are buying. More than half of U.S. adults will play in a state lottery this year.

Lotteries are more than just a chance to dream big. They’ve been part of the fabric of American society since before the country was founded, Cohen said. In a call on Friday, hours before the closely anticipated drawing, he talked about the reasons so many Americans play even when the jackpot isn’t in the 10-figure range. Cohen is a program officer at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the author of the new book “For a Dollar and a Dream: State Lotteries in Modern America.” 

The conversation that follows has been edited for clarity and space.

MarketWatch: What should someone who is about to buy a ticket know about the history of the lottery?

Jonathan Cohen: The lottery you are supporting was probably enacted with a very specific purpose in mind. In many Southern states, it supported pre-kindergarten programs and college scholarship programs. In Pennsylvania, it’s elder-care programs. In other states, it’s the general education budget. Those state lotteries were created for the purpose of supporting those funds. 

But I would also say, just so you know, don’t think you’re playing out of altruistic benefit, because the ultimate benefit to states from lotteries has been much lower than initially imagined. 

Why do people play even though they almost certainly won’t win?

Some of it is the same as what it was in the 1700s. The phenomenon and the hope of making money, maybe even life-changing money, through chance has been a way of American life and culture since before the founding of the country. What has changed is the size of the jackpot today. That has changed perceptions of what the lottery means. As the rich are getting richer, the jackpots are getting bigger. They give you a chance to enter the increasingly exclusive enclaves of the very rich. 

Lotteries have some well-publicized downsides. Are they doing more harm than good right now?

I think the lottery probably does more harm than good overall today, just because of the number of lower-income, nonwhite, less-educated people who spend significant amounts of money playing. It warps our beliefs about how easy it is to get rich, and our beliefs about how fair economic mobility is. Those are negatives we need to weigh against the very clear concrete benefits that lotteries have produced for students, taxpayers, politicians. Fifty to 60 years ago it was probably doing more good than harm, but at some point along the way that shifted.

What does the current jackpot mean for this particular economic moment? 

The financial insecurity and instability that a lot of people are experiencing because of inflation would certainly be a driver of lottery popularity. It’s easy to reason that if money is made up and just changes values all the time, seemingly of its own accord, why couldn’t I defy the odds and hit a billion-dollar jackpot? I’m sort of joking, but that’s actually an ethos that helped the popularity of lotteries in the 1980s with the rise of Wall Street. Money seems to magically change hands without anyone doing work, so why not get a piece of it myself?

So I think gas prices and inflation increase the need for people to have hope elsewhere. And inflation contributes to the idea that money just can change hands and move around seemingly without any real connection to what’s happening in the real world.

Are you playing tonight? 

I have not bought one for tonight’s drawing, though I might do so today. I very infrequently buy tickets, usually only in situations like this where it’s causing mania. But despite seven years of writing a book about lotteries, I’m not immune to fantasies and hopes about a jackpot. I hope that says a lot about how widespread these hopes can be among people who buy tickets regularly and also those who, like me, don’t. 

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