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Who plays the lottery, and why: Research review

Tags: , | Last updated: November 28, 2012

Last updated: November 28, 2012

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Mega lottery jackpots, big winners and out-of-the-blue scratch ticket miracles are routinely featured across American media. The associated lottery revenues are often critical to budgets; state revenues from lottery tickets totaled $77.3 billion as of 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, helping to subsidize a variety of government programs.

The research literature in this area, however, often highlights the more problematic aspects of this phenomenon. A 2011 paper in the Journal of Gambling Studies conducts a thorough review of the available research on lotteries and concludes that the “poor are still the leading patron of the lottery and even the people who were made to feel poor buy lotteries. The legalization of gambling has seen a significant increase of young people gambling, particularly in lotteries, and the best predictor of their lottery gambling is their parents’ lottery participation.” A 2012 study from Yale University finds that the “receipt of scratch lottery tickets as gifts during childhood or adolescence was associated with risky/problematic gambling and with gambling-related attitudes, behaviors, and views suggesting greater gambling acceptability.” Moreover, other studies, such as a 2010 paper in the Journal of Community Psychology, find that lottery outlets are often clustered in neighborhoods with large numbers of minorities, who are at greatest risk for developing gambling addictions.

The psychological reasons that explain the connection between poverty and lottery play are complex. A 2008 experimental study in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making states that “it would be naive to think that low-income individuals disproportionately play lotteries due to ignorance or cognitive errors.” The researchers found that participants, made aware of their low-income status, may play such unlikely odds because of a sense that there is a uniquely level playing field where everyone, rich or poor, has the same chance of winning.

An even broader look at the dynamics between demographics and lottery purchases is the subject of a 2012 study from researchers at the University of Buffalo, also published in the Journal of Gambling Studies. That study, titled  “Gambling on the Lottery: Sociodemographic Correlates Across the Lifespan,” analyzes telephone survey data from a random sampling of nearly 5,000 Americans; the data were compiled from two surveys conducted at different times, one with persons ages 14-21 (though 18 is technically the legal age to play) and the other survey with those 18 and older. The survey asked respondents about all forms of lottery play in the past 12 months, “including instant scratch tickets, daily numbers or Lotto….”

The study’s findings include:

  • “With regard to lottery play for respondents of various racial/ethnic groups, non-Hispanic whites and Native Americans had the highest proportion of gambling on the lottery (51% for each group); however, with regard to mean levels of gambling on the lottery, blacks and Native Americans had the highest averages (20.6 and 25 days, respectively).”
  • Those in the lowest fifth in terms of socioeconomic status (SES) had the “highest rate of lottery gambling (61%) and the highest mean level of days gambled in the past year (26.1 days).” Moreover, there were “very few observed differences in lottery gambling for those in the three upper SES groups — 42–43% gambled on the lottery and the three upper groups averaged about 10 days of gambling on the lottery in the past year.”
  • The data show that “blacks have lower rates of gambling on the lottery than whites, but blacks have a higher average number of days gambled on the lottery than whites. However, in the analysis containing all of the sociodemographic variables, including socioeconomic status and neighborhood disadvantage, black and Hispanic groups are not significantly different from the white reference group in number of days gambled on the lottery.”
  • The tendency to play the lottery in a given year increases for people in their twenties and thirties — the proportion hovers around 70% in those age groups. It dips slightly to about two-thirds for people in their forties, fifties and sixties; and then declines to 45% for people 70 and older.
  • Men play more frequently than women do — 18.7 days over the past year for men, versus 11.3 for females.

The study concludes that “increased levels of lottery play are linked with certain subgroups in the U.S. population — males, blacks, Native Americans, and those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods.”

Tags: poverty, race, gambling

    Writer: | November 28, 2012

    Citation: Barnes, G.M,; Welte, J.W.; Tidwell, M.C.; Hoffman, J.H.. "Gambling on the Lottery: Sociodemographic Correlates Across the Lifespan." Journal of Gambling Studies, December 2011, Vol. 27, No. 4, 575-86. doi: 10.1007/s10899-010-9228-7.

    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related NBCNews.com article titled "$550 Million Will Buy You a Lot of ... Misery."

    1. What key insights from the research examined in the news article and the studies in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full study titled “Gambling on the Lottery: Sociodemographic Correlates Across the Lifespan.”

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Read the press release that accompanied the study, "tk."

    1. If you had written an article based only on the press release, what would have been its main shortcoming(s)?

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?



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    Quora Feb 21, 2015 14:57

    Why don’t people who want income equality lobby against state lotteries which are extremely regressive?

    All gambling is like that. Yet, people of all sorts of SES status engage in things in far worse and get in over their heads. I agree it’s predatory, but I don’t think the ” making money without working for it” is something that just appeals to poor…

    Eric Martin Jun 20, 2015 20:39

    There’s an inconsistency in the following:

    “Men play more frequently than women do — every 18.7 days among males, versus 11.3 among females, on average over the past year.”

    If males go more days on average between lottery ticket purchases then they play less frequently than women, not more. I feel like I’m necro posting since this is an article from 2012, but nobody pointed it out yet and this was the first search result when I searched for “lottery demographics.”

    Leighton Walter Kille Jun 22, 2015 8:49

    Thank you for the close reading of our post. The quote from the study is: “Males gambled on the lottery more than females (18.3 days in the past year for males versus 11.7 days for females),” but our text indicated it was every 18.3/11.7 days — not the case. I’ve made the fix, and thanks again.

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