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The Mega Millions Jackpot Is $1.6 Billion. Should You Buy A Ticket?

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A man reaches for his Mega Millions tickets hours before the draw of the USD 1 billion jackpot, at the Bluebird Liquor store in Torrance, California on October 19, 2018. (Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
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By Aaron Mendelson and Sharon McNary

We all know the chances of winning the lottery are infinitesimally small. But for many, there's that little voice in our heads that whispers "maybe..."

To weigh the pros and cons of playing the gargantuan Mega Millions being drawn Tuesday, our newsroom's biggest lottery cheerleader and our data reporter with a more realistic take on the system sat down on KPCC's Take Two and talked it out. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Aaron Mendelson, data reporter for KPCC/LAist

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I'm a lottery realist. You almost certainly won't win. Don't take it from me -- take it from your Mega Millions ticket. Flip it over. Your odds are 1 in 303 million.

That means if you played 303 million times, you'd expect to hit the jackpot once. It's just not going to happen. It's not a question of luck -- it's math.

And Mega Millions actually made those odds worse last year, which means fewer winners. That's helped pump up jackpots, including to this one. Lotteries know these big jackpots generate excitement, media coverage -- like the conversation we're having right now -- and sales.

I wrote about the lottery earlier this year and detailed how lawmakers engineered more multi-million-dollar jackpots to boost sales.

California's lottery really struggling a decade ago, and lawmakers rewrote the law in 2010 to pump up jackpots. Previously, there was a provision requiring 34 cents of every dollar go to schools, but that no longer exists. Now, less than a quarter of every dollar goes to schools.

For that story, I crunched the numbers on California's 20,000-plus lottery retailers, and noticed that here in Southern California, the lottery is actually more popular than rest of the state. We buy more lottery tickets per capita.

During 2016 and 2017, people in Southern California (excluding San Diego and Imperial counties) spent about $411 per person on the lottery. In the rest of the state, that number was $307.

With all that said: It's totally fine to play the lottery if you enjoy it. But don't treat it like it's an investment, because it's an almost-guaranteed money loser. Your odds are better in a casino (and they're not good there, either).

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Sharon McNary, infrastructure reporter for KPCC/LAist

I'm actually Lottery Captain here at KPCC/LAist. It's an unofficial, self-conferred title, inducing people to spend $2 a pop on a shared vision of riches when the jackpot gets big.

It's not about the winning -- because we don't actually win. We win tiny amounts, and then roll it back into tickets until it's all gone. In fact, all my recruitment memos to my colleagues all open the same way: Hello Losers!

This will be the largest jackpot we've lost, but we lose together! Playing the lotto is sharing a dream that we will win together.

We get to tell each other how we would spend our winnings, and we do little mathematical formulas to figure out how much each of us would get. And we get to hold onto that dream for a couple of days. Where else in grownup life do you get to do that? For the low, low price of $2?

For me, it's really about bonding the different parts of this organization -- development, membership, IT, traffic, editorial. I know all the names of all the people who work here partly because they search me out with their dollar bills and and their hands full of quarters scrounged from the cup holders of their cars?

About half the U.S. population buys lottery tickets, and sales go up when the jackpots do. This last jackpot jumped from $1 billion to $1.6 billion when it rolled over, based on the larger number of people expected to buy tickets for the big jackpot.

I saw a 2014 report that said about $70 billion gets spent on Lotto tickets, working out to about $300 per adult. I don't spend anywhere near that.

I don't play all the time, I only open up a Lotto pool only when the jackpots get into the half-billion dollar range. Typically about half my colleagues kick in. And then I sashay down to the head shop near Von's to buy our tickets. And we only use the quick-pick option because I can't take responsibility for choosing the losing -- I mean, winning numbers.

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(Susanica Tam/KPCC)
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Aaron Mendelson
I actually wrote Sharon during the last drawing to remind her of the odds. I embrace my role as the Spock of this debate. It didn't persuade Sharon, our Captain Kirk.

The proceeds from the lottery go to schools. Oddly enough, that was about $1.6 billion last fiscal year.

That sounds like a lot -- and it is -- but it's comes to only one percent of K-12 school budgets. One source I spoke with for my investigation described lottery funding for schools as quote "toilet paper money."

The payout to schools has basically stayed the same even as ticket sales exploded.

This Mega Millions jackpot is a big development and will likely mean a big boost in revenue. The California lottery could bring in more than $7 billion this fiscal year, which would be a new record.

But for the people who play it, the lottery is almost always a money loser. In my story, I reported that rates of lottery playership are higher in low-income areas, and neighborhoods that are heavily Hispanic and Asian.

That's whose playing. And more often than not, that's who's losing.

Sharon McNary
Eventually someone wins. I believe everything Aaron says about the lotto and the near-infinite odds of winning. I know they call it the tax for people who can't do math.

And I feel slightly guilty about the people who would normally never buy a lottery ticket but go into our pool because they don't want to be left out if we win.

BUT there are winners. A couple years ago, a colleague's friend won a big jackpot, a couple hundred million dollars after taxes. The husband had lost his job, and bought a few tickets and one of them hit big. And unlike so many of the rags-to-riches-to-rags stories, this couple started some nonprofit organizations to do good and the husband is running for public office.

We all have versions of the good we could do if we won -- help relatives and the less fortunate, travel, start a business, buy a better house. Me, I'd become a full-time recreational triathlete and beg for a spot on KPCC's governing board as my version of do-gooding.

Editor's note: Listen to the radio version of this story here on KPCC's Take Two.

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