Mega Millions recipe: longer odds, bigger pots and fewer winners

Mega Millions

Your chances of winning the Mega Millions game are worse than ever, thanks to more numbers from which to choose. Since the change, no one has won. (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times / December 12, 2013)

Although participating states get a cut of the action, the games are run — and the rules are controlled — by groups of lottery officials from across the country.

"We can expect to see larger jackpots and greater excitement," Paula Otto, lead director of the Mega Millions Consortium, said when the rule changes were announced. "Yet one very important thing won't change. The price of a Mega Millions ticket will remain $1."

I like how she characterized this as a good thing. What she was really saying is that now you can pay the same amount for an even worse chance of winning big.

If you do win, though, your chances of a larger jackpot have increased. Fewer winners equals bigger jackpots.

Bigger jackpots equals more players. But there's the rub.

A study published this month in the journal Sociology found that U.S. households spend about $162 a year on lottery tickets, "with low-income households spending around $289."

The amount spent, as a percentage of total net income, is obviously much higher among lower-income households than it is for higher-income households. By some estimates, as much as 9% of disposable income is spent by lower-income households on lottery tickets.

More players thus equals more people transferring wealth to state agencies — a form of indirect taxation, according to experts, that places much of the burden of funding these public entities on those least able to afford it.

Lotteries returned about $19 billion last year to the states that sponsored them, according to the North American Assn. of State and Provincial Lotteries.

Elias Dominguez, a spokesman for the California Lottery, which runs the various games available statewide, acknowledged that the Mega Millions rules were changed to ensure bigger jackpots.

He said this wasn't a direct response to the huge Powerball jackpots, but admitted that lottery officials haven't been blind to Powerball's popularity.

"It's harder to win the Mega Millions jackpot now; we understand that," he said. "But games have to be reinvented every now and then to keep people's interest."

He said that even though Mega Millions jackpots are further out of reach, your chances of winning a smaller prize have improved.

Evangelista has been playing for years. He said he spends at least $8 a week on Mega Millions, SuperLotto Plus, Fantasy 5 or Powerball lotteries.

He estimates his winnings over the years at "maybe $20."

"But all I need is to win one jackpot to catch up," Evangelista said.

High hopes. Long odds.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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