If this week is any indication, the lottery can make a handful of people very rich.
On Wednesday morning, news broke that there had been a winner in Tuesday night’s Mega Millions drawing: Someone from South Carolina had won the $1.5 billion jackpot. While the prize fell short of the all-time lottery record, it marked just the second time ever that someone won more than $1 billion. For whoever wins these massive sums of money, that’s great.
Ultimately, however, the government is always the real winner when it comes to the lottery — which is exactly why everyone should stop paying this voluntary tax altogether.
The average adult in the U.S. spends $325 per year on lottery tickets — and low-income people are more likely to spend more; in 2009, South Carolina households earning less than $40,000 per year comprised 54 percent of the state’s frequent lottery players despite only being 28 percent of the population. Plus, a 2012 report found that households earning under $13,000 per year spent 9 percent of their earnings on lottery tickets. What this really means though is that people who need money are choosing to give away more of their money to the government.
The real purpose of the lottery is for states to generate more revenue. A 2017 CNN report showed that the government only paid out 63 percent of the money spent on the lottery in prizes per year. The rest, close to $34 billion, went to funding government-run education, social programs, and states’ general funds (as well as the cost of running the lottery, about $12 billion per year).
It’s another avenue for states to collect revenue — and it’s one people are under no obligation to pay. It isn’t extracted from their paychecks or added onto their shopping trip against their will; one has to ask to purchase the ticket and then pick the numbers, in most games.
Normally, the thought of giving the government more money just for the sake of giving them more money is a highly unpopular concept — even in heavily liberal areas. In Massachusetts, for example, there is an option to check a box when filing taxes to pay a voluntary 5.85 percent state income tax rate instead of the regular 5.1 percent. Although Massachusetts is a deep-blue state with high taxes, virtually no one does it; The Bay State has 6.86 million residents and yet, an average of 1,200 people have agreed to this 0.75-point tax hike per year since the concept was implemented in 2002, according to New England Public Radio.
The government already takes enough money away from people with several different forms of taxation: state income, federal income, sales, motor vehicle excise, property, meal, luxury, alcohol/tobacco, gas, phone, road (tolls), capital gains, tariffs, and more. If the odds of getting struck by lightning are nearly 300 times greater than those of winning the grand lottery prize on Mega Millions or Powerball, then why should people bother to pay yet another tax? Maybe the government should try to be more responsible with its money rather than trying to extract more from people who already fund them.
People could easily make better use of the money they spend on the lottery. Whether it’s making an actual investment, making a bet that uses applied knowledge, or simply keeping the money, there are plenty of options that don't involve luck and terrible odds.
Tom Joyce (@TomJoyceSports) is a freelance writer who has been published with USA Today, the Boston Globe, Newsday, ESPN, the Detroit Free Press, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Federalist, and a number of other media outlets.