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Downtown View: Testing the Lottery

Gambling news recently has been all about casinos. This focus will likely go on for several more years as developers duke it out over the three locations. Forgotten in all of this has been the Massachusetts Lottery, which, over the 40 years it has been in operation, has churned out almost $91 billion in sales, and now contributes almost $900 million annually to Massachusetts cities and towns, according to Lisa McDonald, a lottery spokesperson.

If you’re in the older set, you may remember the predictions of dire consequences if we instituted a lottery. But there have been few dire consequences. Since pols are terrified of raising taxes, the lottery has saved many a municipality from wrack and ruin—aka rack and ruin, for those wordsmiths with an opposing opinion.

The lottery has been good for Massachusetts, and it’s not just the cities and towns who have benefited. The 7,400 agents who sell tickets earn on average $44,000 a year, said McDonald, which, she pointed out, was a nice, reliable pile of cash for small businesses, which most agents are. About 10 percent of those agents are in Boston.

Players also benefit. The Massachusetts Lottery has the highest prize payout in the country, said McDonald. In fiscal year 2012 the lottery awarded almost $3.4 billion in prizes. About 150 people last year won a million dollars or more. One hundred thirty-four people who bought from Boston agents each won $100,000 or more.

A profile of ticket buyers matches the state as a whole, McDonald said. People between the ages of 35 and 54 are the most typical buyer, and most have a college education. “It’s not the stereotype of the down-and-out and the poor who buy tickets,” said McDonald. In fact, sales in Boston’s financial district are brisk, although the highest per capita sales in the city are in East Boston, South Boston and Chinatown.

Massachusetts residents ages 18 and older each spend on average $1,030 a year on lottery tickets. That’s about $20 a week. About 70 percent of those sales are for instant tickets, with the rest going for the jackpot tickets. My local lottery ticket sales guy, Kumar, told me many of his customers come in for their lottery tickets along with their coffee every morning on the way to work. They might play their favorite numbers, which McDonald says is a habit more common in older folks than in young. When the jackpot winnings go into Mitt Romney’s net worth territory, ticket sales spike severely with everyone, and the counter gets busy.

I’m one of those high jackpot buyers, but only if my local convenience store puts a sign on their door telling me it’s gone into the stratosphere. So I decided to buy some typical tickets to see what it was like to play the lottery regularly.

I tried to mimic the usual buyer’s habits. So I plunked down $25—I figured it was near enough to the average. Seventeen dollars went for instant scratch tickets. Out of five tickets of varying prices I hit only one payout, which was five dollars. When I bought another ticket with that five dollars, I hit nothing. For variation I bought a “Super Cashword” ticket which Kumar said was the second best selling instant ticket.

It wasn’t so instant since I couldn’t figure out how to play this crossword-like puzzle. I took it home to read the instructions. I still couldn’t figure out if I had won. I returned to Kumar, who told me I had won $20.

So then I splurged. Is this the way to ruin? Kumar told me that the “for life” tickets, which are relatively new, were the most popular. I spent $20 on a “$10,000 a week for Life” ticket, and won $25. I spent $20 of that amount on another “for life” ticket and won nothing.

Meanwhile my jackpot tickets were doing poorly. On Wednesday night three of them were in play. I matched only two numbers on all three tickets. I am having to wait until Friday night to see if I won on the next three tickets. Since I’m now a betting woman, I’m betting I won’t win, so I’m sending this column in on deadline before the drawing. I’ll let you know if things turn out different from what I expect.

I was down to $5 cash and had spent $45, so I decided to go home.

What had I learned? Not much. Except that I’ve still never won anything in my life except for a Christmas wreath made by the Garden Club of the Back Bay at a local meeting, and my luck didn’t change with this little experiment. It’s probably not going to. Buying the tickets is rather fun, and most cost less than a cup of coffee, so it’s a pretty cheap way to entertain oneself. And if the games benefit small businesses and Massachusetts cities and towns, I’d better do my fair share.

So from now on every once in awhile, I’ll go in and buy a ticket. But it is purely charitable giving. I’m never going to win and you’re probably not going to win either.

 

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.

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