The Odds of Winning the Lottery Jackpot

As the prize in America’s two biggest lotteries reaches dizzying heights, a whole country is gripped with lottery fever. Billboards dangle cartoon dollar signs and the Mega Millions jackpot is up to nearly $1.6 billion. But a quick look at the odds shows it’s pretty unlikely that anyone will win.

A lot of people buy lottery tickets because they think they’re getting rich fast. But if winning the jackpot actually meant that, people would stop buying tickets and instead work on their skills. Instead, the odds seem to have a magical effect that tricks people into thinking they are getting richer.

It’s not just a matter of perception, either. The math doesn’t lie: You are many, many times likelier to be struck by lightning than to win the jackpot in any given drawing. But that doesn’t stop people from dreaming about winning the big prize.

Lottery winners have to choose whether to accept the cash payout or let lottery organizers invest the money in an annuity that pays them a certain amount for 30 years. The latter option is much smaller than the advertised jackpot, but it’s still a tempting lure, especially since the majority of lottery winners opt for it.

While winning the lottery is great for state coffers, it’s also bad news for low-income families and minorities. Study after study has shown that ticket sales are disproportionately concentrated in areas with lower socioeconomic status and more gambling addiction problems. And that’s why the six states that don’t run their own lotteries (Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada) are also the six that have some of the highest poverty rates in the nation.