The Lucky Few: A Case Study on the Lottery

Naomi Chasek-MacFoyDecember 30, 2016Money and ValueFeatures
The Lucky Few: A Case Study on the Lottery

Artwork by Amy Liu

Mary and John Pacifico and their four sons, a family of six from New York’s Hudson Valley region, had bills to pay. They were not starving or desperate, but money was not to be wasted. Of the four boys, three were enrolled in college.

Like many American families, the Pacificos played the lottery. Like many Americans, for the Pacificos the lottery was a pastime, not a viable source of income, but a hope against almost unbeatable odds that they might come into money. The lottery beckons with an easy path to financial security. For many Americans, this dream remains unrealized, deferred, always just out of reach. John Pacifico had been, and continues to be, a frequent lottery player, a habit which caused tension between him and his wife who believed, “If you are meant to win, you will. Even if you only play once.” He had won several times, the largest of the prizes being $5000. It was fun, not revolutionary.

Several years ago, things changed. Unlike many lottery players, the Pacificos were lucky. After years of lottery scratch-off tickets and small prizes, their luck came in the form of a one-million-dollar lottery jackpot. Despite the seeming magnitude of this prize, and the undeniable value of such a sum, in today’s world even one million dollars (taken in installments over 20 years as the Pacificos have taken it) has limited worth. While this money provides a much needed cushion, it has not created a major change in their socioeconomic status. The Pacificos must continue working, although they are more relaxed then they have been in the past. “I can honestly say my husband is less stressed,” states Ms. Pacifico about their lottery win.

The lottery, like all gambling, is a hope. It is a dream solidified in a brightly colored scratch-off card, or printed out receipt. Regardless of the roles we ascribe to money, the lottery presents a seductive shortcut towards the achievement of financial goals as well as an ostensibly simple way to attempt a change in socioeconomic status. Ultimately, it is a chance, a risk: fun. The lottery is a game. This basic fact, coupled with the prevalence of the lottery in our society, has various implications in terms of the way we regard money. Ideally, money is the means, not the end, of success. It is a ticket to tangible wealth and empirical comfort. Money places whatever food, whatever house, whatever shoes that are desired, within reach. Thus, the lottery is both a hope for a more comfortable future, a prayer for redemption in the form of a messiah made of money, and an investment. To be clear, although the lottery is an investment with little likelihood of any payout, it is nonetheless both psychologically and practically potent. Perhaps this confluence of emotion and rationality lends the lottery its dynamic power. It plays to a primal metric incorporating risk and reward, but also to the more modern notions of investment, albeit with acceptable risk, governing our economic system. This dichotomy in the lottery’s image is epitomized in the New York Lottery slogan, “Hey, You Never Know.” This line highlights the true potential of playing the lottery, while subtly digging at a deeply emotional and vague sense of opportunity. Ultimately, there is truth to this claim. You never do know. Therein lies the complexity of the lottery.

The Pacificos also embody some of these complexities. The money they won is clearly an investment in the future of their family. It was an investment in the peace of mind — which they currently enjoy — and which Mary terms “more valuable than anything we could possibly buy.” From her words, however, there is a distinct sense that for John, the lottery is something more. Only the immense draw of its excitement can explain his continued playing in light of their already large prize. John’s continued playing of the lottery also indicates that for him, some of the reward is in the process, not the product of his investments. This is underscored by the fact that pragmatically, the Pacificos took their winnings in installments over 20 years. If the satisfaction lay solely in money, then a lump sum payment would have been much more enticing. Ultimately, the Pacificos’ story exemplifies the juncture of emotion and rationality in the lottery. While there is clearly fun to be had in the game, it is also an investment. First and foremost the money from the lottery has benefited the Pacificos in a way that is primal, but also profoundly rational.

Not every family, however, is so fortunate. For each John Pacifico, there are thousands of nameless Americans suffering yet another loss. Despite claims of increased odds, the likelihood of a lottery win is astoundingly low. Low-income families who play in disproportionate numbers feel such pain most acutely. In fact, “the people who spend the most on lotteries tend to be less educated and have lower incomes” according to Matthew Sweeney, author of The Lottery Wars. Families making $13,000 a year or less spend on average 9% of their income on the lottery, an often crippling expense.

The impetus behind lottery play may be rational, however. For many families, the lottery may be the only available form of investment. Prevailing economic theories place investment as a central component to financial security. For these individuals, the lottery is undoubtedly an investment in financial security, although a highly illogical one. “[A]s an investment, it offers a dreadful return, which is why the lottery is sometimes called ‘a tax on stupid people'” (Freakonomics Radio). While this language is perhaps excessively harsh, it underlines the pitfalls of playing the lottery. For a low-income family, without access to more traditional investment options, the lottery may seem to present a viable option. In the overwhelming majority of cases, it is not. As indicated by the Pacificos’ story, many lottery players seek primarily, or at least in part, to protect and support their families. This impulse is a universal one. The prevalence of lottery playing among poor families exemplifies the spectacular failure of government, and our society to provide all families with the means and education to practically achieve financial security. In 2008, roughly 60 billion dollars’ worth of lottery tickets were sold in the United States. In addition to this, “80 percent of tickets are bought by 20 percent of players.” Considering the aforementioned statistics, presumably, low-income families spent a substantial percentage of this 60 billion. If we accept that many of these sales were to individuals looking to provide a safety net for their families, then the lottery becomes a powerful testament to the income, education, and opportunity gaps in our society.

Ultimately, the Pacificos and their experience with the lottery may also yield insight into our society’s relationship with money on a larger scale. Perhaps our ever agrarian, industrialist and product-oriented society fails to understand money as a commodity in and of itself. This disconnect can explain in part our complicated relationship with money. Despite its gravity, or perhaps because of it, attitudes towards money are never wholeheartedly serious, indicating, that on a societal level, money itself is a game. The great paradox of money, as exemplified by the lottery, is that we both trivialize, and give great importance to it. Money has value in what it can procure, but itself remains esoteric, and ephemeral. We cannot make it tangible. In a way, the lottery gives money a meaning beyond its bartering value, a meaning often out of reach for many Americans.

Naomi Chasek-MacFoy is a senior attending Bard High School Early College. She enjoys reading, playing soccer, and sewing and lives in Brooklyn, New York.