Lotteries are a big business. Hopeful individuals dreaming of huge and potentially life-changing cash prizes spend a significant amount of cash every month. Lottery proceeds help fund public sector programs, including education, park services, and funds for veterans and seniors.

The Mega Millions and Powerball lotteries have become a key feature of monthly consumer spending in the U.S. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, income from state-administered lottery funds generated $81.6 billion in sales in 2019 (the latest year on file). So it's no surprise that the profits generated by national lotteries are understandably huge.

But with the stakes so high and the chances of winning so low, is participating in the lottery a waste of cash or simply a high-risk opportunity worth the weekly gamble?

Key Takeaways

  • Lotteries are a huge business, drawing in almost $82 billion in 2019.
  • The odds of winning the Powerball and Mega Million jackpots are one in 292.2 million and one in 302.6 million, respectively.
  • New York led the states in lottery spending, reporting $10.3 billion in annual lottery sales.
  • Some people play the lottery through syndicates where they pool their money with others to increase their odds of winning.
  • Lotteries generate revenue for the states, which often use the money to fund public education and social services.

Lotteries in the U.S.

While your chances of winning the lottery are decidedly slim, the sheer size of the U.S. population and popularity of the game means that hopeful winners must climb an even steeper mountain toward any potential windfall.

Even though this equates to several tickets being purchased per U.S. resident, the odds of each person winning the Mega Millions jackpot is one in 302.6 million, while the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot is one in 292.2 million. This means that statistically there is a greater likelihood of being struck by lightning or becoming a billionaire than there is of claiming the Mega Millions jackpot. That's a low probability with a high cost—almost $82 billion spent by Americans. This is reflective of a growing trend, with lottery sales continuing to soar.

New Yorkers have been the lead in lottery spending, accounting for $8.8 billion in lottery sales. California, Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts rounded out the top five for spending. Wyoming and North Dakota were the states where people spent the least on lottery tickets.

23 Jackpots

The number of jackpots Mega Millions has awarded that have exceeded $300 million.

The Argument Against National Lotteries

An interesting consequence of the Mega Millions jackpot is the significant rise in the number of syndicates that purchase tickets. Rather than being discouraged by the insurmountable odds, Americans are looking for innovative ways to improve their chances. As a result, they spend more on tickets. But using a syndicate still means the likelihood of winning remains slim, which raises questions about whether lottery hopefuls could put their money to better use.

The financial future or long-term happiness of those who win is not necessarily secured. Acquiring huge sums of money can inspire extreme emotional reactions, and there have been several instances where winning the lottery has triggered a serious decline in the quality of life of individuals and families.

The Benefits of National Lotteries

Five winners each claimed a different Mega Millions jackpot in 2020. The lottery paid out jackpots to another five winners as of October 2021. A cash prize of $314.4 million cash was awarded to someone on Sept. 21, 2021, in New York who purchased their ticket in New York City.

The average American spent approximately $220 in 2017 on the lottery. With the large majority of ticket purchases spending more as the payout rises, this would suggest that rather than being symbolic of growth in the U.S. gambling culture, national lotteries are the opposite. They may, in fact, indicate that many people who play do so responsibly with the majority doing so sporadically.

Another argument for lotteries is that they generate a significant amount of money for state-funded projects—notably, public education and social services projects. With this in mind, people who play the lottery responsibly actually contribute to local community development. This means that their gambling creates some form of positive social change.

Individual states decide how the money raised from lottery tickets is spent.

The Bottom Line

Supporters say there's a big case for keeping national lotteries in place—mainly because of the revenue they provide individual states. But naysayers argue that they encourage needless and excessive spending, enticing starry-eyed individuals hoping for a piece of a multi-million dollar pie.

Regardless of where you sit, the fact remains that participants should play responsibly and spend within their means. As long as they do, there is no reason why everyone can't enjoy the lottery as they contribute to state and national funding.