The $1.6B Lottery

{Note: This post is significantly longer than usual.}Powerball image
The recent Powerball jackpot seems to have been the topic of conversation at every gathering for the past week. It was at my office, several places on Facebook, at my parents’ house, and…yes, even in my car with my wife.

$1.6 billion. Think about that. Can you even grasp that much money?

Let me give you an even larger number: $2.4 billion. That’s how much money people have spent on tickets for this jackpot. The Multi-State Lottery Association (note that Powerball is separate from individual state lotteries—which are receiving huge amounts of money in ticket sales on their own) keeps about one-third of what’s spent on Powerball tickets, so the only reason they’re paying out $1.6B is because they have received over $2.4B. Money people have poured out of their pockets to buy tickets—just in the past two months since the last jackpot!

Most of the discussions have revolved around, “What would you do with the money?” Looking at the $2.4B number, my mind goes somewhere else: “What could you have done with the money?” Imagine what a sudden infusion of $2.4B could do for your favorite cause? People have only paid half that much to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens and that amount is worldwide, not just in the U.S., and the people have gotten over 2 hours of exciting entertainment for their money.

What did people get for the money they spent on lottery tickets? Everyone knows that the odds are better that you’re going to be attacked by a shark in Kentucky than that you’re going to win the jackpot, so what are they getting that is worth giving away their money for?

It seems to me that people are paying money to get hope; to buy the opportunity to dream. Sure, that hope is based on a 1 in 292,200,000 chance, but hey…it’s still a chance, right? More importantly, people paid $2.4B for the right to dream the answer to, “What would I do with the money?”

What does that tell you about the state of contentment in the United States?

When we read Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, do we get the feeling that he would buy a lottery ticket?

4:10 How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. 11 Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. 13 For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.

“But I only want to win so I can give the money away to support good causes.”

Really? Let’s think about what happens to the money. The MUSL has already scraped 33¢ off your dollar for its own overhead and to give to the government. For this jackpot, that means that 67¢ of your dollar is going to the lottery and government. Of the amount that goes to the government, much of it is absorbed simply for the overhead of the government itself and the overhead costs of the organizations that receive the money.

“But that money goes to education!”OliverLottery

Really? Ask a teacher how much better funded he or she is. Ask how much of their embarrassing salaries they have to spend on school supplies that the local districts can no longer afford to pay for. In nearly every state that has a lottery, state spending on education has decreased.

Some amazingly lucky person wins the 67¢ you donated. IRS immediately withholds 25%, and the full federal tax of 39.6% is due when you file your taxes. So, of your original dollar the government has taken another 26¢ in taxes, leaving 41¢.

But wait, the state gets their tax dollars on your winnings too—even though they already got their cut of the first 33¢. In Kentucky, your winnings are taxed at 6% which is another 4¢ from your original dollar.

Putting all of that together, of the $1 you spent a full 63¢ is essentially free tax money you are donating to the government.

If you only want to win so you can give the money away to support good causes, you can either give $1 directly to that good cause (and get a tax break for the donation) or you can play the lottery and give only 37¢ to that good cause.

The Real Itch

It seems to me that for the most part people are buying the right to dream, because they believe that a huge windfall will solve their problems. How sad.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that poverty is real and it is not a happy place. But if you’re poor, is it better to spend a dollar for the right to dream or to spend that dollar on food? If you’re not in poverty, is it better to spend $20 on lottery tickets or to buy $20 worth of groceries and give them to someone who is?

Will it solve your problems? It hasn’t for the vast majority of past lottery winners.

“The National Endowment for Financial Education estimates that as many as 70 percent of Americans who experience a sudden windfall will lose that money within a few years. People handed a hefty check also usually experience erratic emotions ranging from elation to resentment to anger, according to the NEFE” (

“I had to adapt to this new life,” Hayes said. “I had to endure the greed and the need that people have, trying to get you to release your money to them. That caused a lot of emotional pain. These are people who you’ve loved deep down, and they’re turning into vampires trying to suck the life out of me” (Ibid.)

Why pay for the right to dream (and risk all the bad things that happen if you get what you’re hoping for), when the Bible gives it to you at no cost? In his most famous sermon, Jesus said, God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3). Jesus said that His followers could go beyond dreaming about earthly solutions, and count on eternal solutions from God. Our problems on earth, bad as they may be, are temporary. Heaven is a promise to those who follow the Jesus who said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” Heaven is immeasurably better than we can even imagine!

You want to talk about a party? The best music ever? The most happy, carefree people ever? The lottery can’t offer that. Jesus can.