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The lottery, gambling and education: Is it worth it?

January 9, 2023 Daniel Cody
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The $1.537 billion lottery jackpot in 2018 was the ultimate prize. The premise that one could become a multi-billionaire by simply strolling to the deli and picking up a ticket seems like a falsity. There’s no way someone could – by a stroke of luck that’s more improbable than being hit by lightning – achieve Great Gatsby-like wealth overnight.

The billion-dollar jackpot was a result of Mega Millions’ strategy to generate and maintain public interest in the lottery: decreasing the chances of buying the winning ticket and in turn exponentially enlarging the prize. According to The Conversation, before 2017, players chose five numbers between one and 75, and another number between one and 15. Now, the contest consists of five numbers between one and 70 and one number between one and 25: you are more likely to claim a prize, but less likely to win the ‘contest.’ Naturally, if you could ascend to the Bezos class that easily, then more people will participate… I mean, someone has to be the winner, right? And there’s more winners now than ever.

On Friday, the $940 million Mega Millions jackpot was the third-largest in the lottery organization’s history. Sadly, no one was lucky enough to claim it. According to CBS, the odds of winning were a ‘gargantuan’ one-in-302.6 million.

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On Jan. 7, a $20,000 Take 5 ticket was sold at L.A. Pizza and Convenience in Williamsburg. Two million-dollar Mega Millions tickets were sold in Manhattan and Troy, New York. The winners are having a good season.

Roberto Ramirez, 77, from Guadalajara, Mexico holds a SuperLotto Plus ticket at the gas station that previously sold the $2.04 billion-winning Powerball ticket award at Joe’s Service Center, a Mobil gas station at Woodbury Road and Fair Oaks Avenue in Altadena, Calif., Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. Lottery players whose numbers didn’t hit or who forgot to even buy a ticket will have another shot at a nearly $1 billion Mega Millions prize. The estimated $940 million jackpot up for grabs Friday night has been growing for more than two months and now ranks as the sixth-largest in U.S. history.
Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP

The New York State lottery’s first slogan – when it was birthed in 1967 – was, “Your chance of a lifetime to help education.” The controversy lies in whether the lottery is worth all the trouble of overhead costs for operating, and if the money and human energy would be better spent elsewhere in terms of education funding.

After all, the lottery is a form of regulated gambling, like Coney Island casinos and racetrack betting. In New York City, education budget allocations and cuts have proved that there is a conflict in how some people view education as invaluable investment, while others, including Mayor Adams, consider huge swaths of funding unnecessary. Is the lottery instrumental to funding schools, and if not, what is its true purpose?

The premise of the lottery is based on people’s hope that the minute probability of their numbers being the luckiest motivates them to continue scratching, the money from those tickets being absolved into the overhead cost of operating the lottery, but also funding public schools. In the fiscal year 2021-2022, the New York State lottery generated over $1,257,264,823.39 for schools in the five boroughs. Since 1978, the cumulative distribution of money acquired through the lottery in the city K-12 public education system has amounted to over $30 billion.

New York State accrued a whopping $10 billion in lottery sales in 2019, more than any other state in the nation – that’s a lot of people buying their tickets, and putting their hopes in a fraction so small that it might seem sacrilegious to hope to be a winner.

CBS reported that in 2011, more Americans played the lottery than went to church.

The NYS constitution mandates that all funds acquired through the lottery are public, a premise that has existed since its conception. The most recent proportions offered by the NYS lottery organization’s website are from fiscal year 2017 and 2018 – the organization encompasses Mega Millions, Powerball and numerous other gaming brands – indicate that 30% of the funds acquired through the lottery go into K-12 education, 60% is allocated for prizes, and a total of 9% for other miscellaneous costs, like retailer commissions, gaming contractor fees and ‘other’ expenses and ‘other operating’ expenses.

The categories of overhead and retailer costs amount to over $714 million in taxpayer dollars. In the same fiscal year of 2017 and 2018, schools in the five boroughs received $1.8 billion in funding from the lottery. The School Based Expenditure Report for the NYC Department of Education indicates $25,144,008,768 in total spending during the fiscal year 2018. That’s not a big proportion coming from the lottery.

Nonetheless, here’s a chart showing which games benefited schoolchildren the most:

2017-2018 lottery games, and their benefits


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