Who Wins When You Play the Lottery?

No pun intended, but the odds are you've played a lottery game at least once, and unfortunately, you probably didn't win anything. You may have wondered about what happens to the money left over after all the lottery winners are paid?

Games Are Nearly Nationwide

Right now, there's some sort of lottery game in 41 states, the District of Columbia, and the US territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. The only states not offering a lottery are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

By far, the most popular games are Mega Millions and Powerball. In these games, several states join together and play the same game for a single jackpot. Even if one of these games is offered, most states run additional games, too, from big jackpot games to scratch-off or "instant" games. Some states even let you play and buy tickets online.

And it's getting even bigger. In 2010, for the first time ever, Powerball and Mega Millions became available in states that at one time offered only one game or the other. By agreement among the states, the two games were never available in a single state. We're getting closer and closer to a national lottery.

Tracking Where the Money Goes

Lotteries generate millions of dollars each year for the states that offer them. In the current tough economic times, it's money sorely needed. So, how do the states use the money? As a general rule, the money's used to pay for programs and projects benefiting the state's citizens.

It changes from state to state, of course, but lottery revenues are used for things like:

  • Public education. This is by far the biggest winner when it comes to lotteries. Some states, like Ohio, put all lottery money into their schools, while other states give their schools a portion of the revenue
  • Programs for gambling addictions, ironically
  • Social programs, such as health and programs and Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC) programs
  • Public improvements, such as public and civic building funds to pay for schools, libraries, and medical facilities, for instance
  • Making up for shortfalls in the state budget

It's Not All Profit, Either

There are costs to cover, too. In connection with running a lottery, the state has to pay the winners, of course. But there are other costs, such as equipment and machinery needed to operate the games and print tickets. Retailers who sell winning tickets also get a "commission" based on the amount of the winning tickets.

Your state lawmakers, and particularly your governor, control the budget and can tell you exactly how your state's lottery revenues are used. It's a public record.

Have Fun, Be Careful

Lotteries do a lot of good in the communities. Your local public schools and other programs may not be able to stay open without lottery revenues. Be careful not to get swept up in the excitement of the games, though, gambling addiction is nothing to laugh at.

Remember, lotteries are games of chance - it's gambling, pure and simple. Sometimes it's easy to believe that the jackpot of a lifetime is "just one more play" or "a few more tickets" away. Once Mega Millions and Powerball are available in the same state, those games' multi-million dollar payouts may make you think that a bit more often.

Have fun, but play responsibly.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • If I win the lottery, how can I claim the money without making my name public?
  • Can lawmakers decide on their own to start or stop a lottery within their state, or do they need to get the voters' approval?
  • Can I deduct lottery losses on my income tax returns?
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