The Poor Play More

Courant Staff Writers

What are the odds that a streetwise section of Hartford's North End and a rural farm town that once hosted a Ku Klux Klan rally would meet at the top of any demographic list? By most measures, they seem worlds apart.

But a Courant analysis of the state's heaviest lottery playing ZIP codes - those with the most winning tickets per capita - found that the top tier is dominated by an unlikely mix of inner-city neighborhoods and cornfield communities.

Residents there share a dream of escaping the daily grind with one lucky break, and they share the distinction of having less income and education than people in the state as a whole, The Courant found. As a group, they are also disproportionately black and Hispanic.

The Connecticut Lottery Corp., which spends a fortune studying its best customers, is well aware of all this - and would prefer to keep it quiet.

In fact, the results of the lottery's own exhaustive customer research traditionally were locked in a file cabinet, shared only with a handful of marketing executives, until the state Freedom of Information Commission forced their release last month. The documents reveal that the most popular games are significantly more likely to be played by "those with less education" and by "non-whites."

The demographic disparities became even clearer in The Courant's analysis, which compared education and income data from the most recent U.S. Census with lottery records listing the names and ZIP codes of more than 80,000 prize winners since 1993. Only prizes of $600 or more, which are paid with a check from the lottery corporation, are included in the winners' database.

Because the odds of winning are the same anywhere tickets are sold, communities with high concentrations of winners are also places where people spend the most money on the lottery. When the state's ZIP codes are ranked by the number of winning tickets per capita, a mathematical sketch emerges showing where the lottery's most frequent players live.

Of the 20 heaviest lottery playing ZIP codes with at least 1,000 residents:

All have a median household income below the state norm of $53,935. One of the heaviest lottery playing ZIP codes, 06120 in the northeastern part of Hartford, is the second poorest in the state.

Nineteen of the top ZIP codes fall below the state average for the percentage of working-age adults with bachelor's degrees.

Seventeen exceed the state average of working-age adults who never finished high school.

Thirty percent of the people in the top ZIPs listed themselves as black and 20 percent listed themselves as Hispanic on the 2000 Census. Each group accounts for roughly 9 percent of the state population as a whole.

Some of the state's heaviest lottery playing ZIP codes are in rural communities such as the Northfield section of Litchfield, Scotland, Riverton and Oneco. They couldn't be included in the statistical analysis because the census gets income and education data through sampling, and the numbers become unreliable in smaller populations.

But tax data and interviews with residents demonstrate that none of these small pockets of heavy lottery play fits the Connecticut stereotype of a suburban haven for well-paid, highly educated professionals. In fact, no Connecticut ZIP code where at least half of the adult residents have a bachelor's degree or higher cracked the top 20 list, and only two broke the top 100.

Quentin Woodward, who runs a general store in rural Scotland, said he's embarrassed to sell the instant tickets, but they generate lots of foot traffic and the players often buy drinks and snacks while they scratch. He doesn't like it, but it's legal and he needs the money, he said.

"What's obvious, and frustrates me about the lottery process, is that the state is knowingly complicit in enabling people with serious gambling problems," Woodward said. "There's no question that they know what they're doing."

The Killer Touch

Top lottery officials said they have never analyzed their own winner data by ZIP code to determine where their customers live. Instead, they have relied on telephone surveys done by consultants.

"I'm not a researcher, but I've heard that studies in Connecticut and other states tend to show that the whole spectrum of people of legal buying age tend to play the lottery," James Vance, the lottery's president, said in an interview last week.

Vance said that the bulk of the lottery's sales comes from the "middle of the spectrum" and that their research shows the people least likely to play come from the very bottom and the very top of the economic ladder. He denied that the lottery targets any particular demographic group.

The lottery's winner database, however, shows a vast disparity in the rate of play in Connecticut's richest and poorest ZIP codes. Since 1993, at least one winning ticket has been redeemed for every 17 people living in the 10 ZIP codes with the lowest median incomes.

In the 10 richest ZIP codes, one ticket has been redeemed for every 98 residents.

Twenty-five winning tickets have been redeemed from Scotland's 06264 ZIP code since 1993. That's one winning ticket for every six people there, according to the 2000 Census. Scotland - which was briefly notorious in 1980 for hosting the state's first Klan rally in 50 years - ranks in the bottom half of Connecticut towns in median household income.

Woodward said the lottery occasionally gives store owners "pamphlets where they pretend they care about this stuff. They call it `gambling awareness week,' but they're just putting on a show. I literally laughed at the lottery representative who gave that one to me. He said he gets that all the time."

A ZIP code serving 42 residents of Northfield, which is part of Litchfield, has generated the heaviest lottery play since 1993. Twenty-four lottery tickets worth at least $600 have been redeemed by people living within the tiny confines of 06778.

That's one winning ticket for every two residents.

"You could throw a stone from one end of this place to the other," said William Lefebvre, a 39-year-old cafeteria supervisor at a state prison who has redeemed five of those tickets, including one for $100,000 in 1998.

While Litchfield's town center is a dining and shopping mecca for wealthy New Yorkers looking for a comfortable dose of rural charm, Northfield is a poorer crossroads with one church, one general store and one auto repair shop with a parking lot full of old American-built pickup trucks.

"The hoity-toity people in Litchfield don't care much about Northfield's identity," said David Flynn, who works in the general store and lives nearby. "They'd probably be just as happy if Northfield disappeared."

Marc Poulin, who lives in the Bridgeport ZIP code that ranked seventh for lottery playing, hasn't been lucky. The 51-year-old carpenter has been playing the lottery at least once a week since it began in 1972. In April, he suddenly found himself $30,000 richer after scratching the latex off of a $30 instant ticket, the most expensive of its kind in the nation.

But even that remarkable stroke of good fortune didn't make up for three decades of steady losses.

"Obviously, I feel lucky that I hit that kind of money," Poulin said. "But if you're asking me if I'm ahead of the game, the answer is no. I'm not bankrupt, but I'm definitely not ahead of the game."

Interviews with dozens of the state's top lottery winners reveal that almost all have poured considerably more money into the lottery than they have taken out - as the odds would predict. The most frequent winner, a Branford man who has claimed 109 of the big prizes for more than half a million dollars, figures he's actually $200,000 behind.

"I'm in the hole right now, big time. Yeah, I did have a couple of nice hits, but it ain't all cake and ice cream," said Frank, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used.

Twice in less than two months he won $100,000 by picking the numbers in the daily drawing, but it turned out to be the worst thing that ever happened to him. He started to believe he had the "killer touch."

"If I made a hit like that and stopped right there, I'd be sitting on easy street. Or easier street. But that ain't what happened," he said.

Tapped Out

People living in some of the state's poorest cities, such as Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven, account for a disproportionately large share of lottery players, according to The Courant's analysis.

A ZIP code in Hartford's Blue Hills neighborhood, 06112, ranked third in winning tickets. More than 2,400 big prizes have been claimed there since 1993 - one for every nine residents. Thirty-three percent of the working-age adults - those over 25 years old by the Census Bureau's definition - have no high school diploma, and just 7 percent have a college degree.

Statewide, 16 percent of the adult population never finished high school and 32 percent have at least a four-year college degree.

Another north Hartford ZIP code, 06120, ranked ninth. In addition to being the second poorest postal code in the state, behind a neighborhood in Waterbury, it is also among the least educated.

Forty-nine percent of the working-age adults never finished high school. Only 5 percent finished college.

The Courant's review of lottery marketing research from around the country shows that officials nationwide have known for years that the billions of dollars pumping into state coffers through the games come disproportionately from the lower economic and educational strata of society.

For example, among the best lottery customers in the state of Washington is a group consultants there have dubbed "the disenchanted."

In a recent survey, nearly 80 percent of this group, who have less education than other population groups, agreed with the statement, "I often have trouble making ends meet." More than half disagree with the statement, "These are the best years of my life."

A recent study by lottery giant Scientific Games International for officials in New Hampshire found that residents "with lower education levels are significantly more likely to play the lottery." That report was labeled "highly confidential."

Most market research viewed by The Courant advised lottery officials not to bother trying to entice educated or upper-middle-class skeptics. Instead, states are encouraged to boost sales by marketing their games to people who already play regularly.

A consultant hired last year by the Connecticut lottery noted that recent sluggish sales could mean the poor are getting "tapped out" on the games. Several alternative marketing approaches are considered in the report, including one dubbed "An Open Book Policy." It would be designed to woo more educated players through ads that discuss how the games help the state's bottom line.

But that idea was summarily dismissed out of a fear that trying to explain where the money goes might open a political Pandora's box.

"Consider that some residents may not be overjoyed with the fact that proceeds go into the general fund for the state because some people are very skeptical of the `black hole' effect in big government," reads the 2001 report by the Angus Reid Group Inc.

For policy-makers, such market surveys are dangerous reading, said state Rep. Jefferson Davis, D-Pomfret, who was on the committee that oversaw the lottery before it became a quasi-public agency. While the income and education level of the lottery's best customers would come as no surprise to most legislators, Davis said they prefer to "keep the blinders on" unless there is some problem they can't ignore.

"One of the dirty little secrets is that this is easy to ignore unless the lottery corporation comes up with some new, outrageous ad campaign," Davis said. "One could cynically say that the people who are the primary consumers are also those who are least likely to vote, which only lessens the concern of the General Assembly."

That's why lottery officials across the country are encouraged to view their mission like any business, putting profits ahead of other concerns, said Charles Clotfelter, a Duke University economist, who co-authored "Selling Hope."

"The way the [lottery administrator's] job has been defined, by the legislatures in many cases, is to go out and make money, but don't tell us how you're doing it," Clotfelter said. "That leads to lotteries engaging in activities that are inconsistent with the broader goals of the state government."

Vance, who answers to legislators on the public safety committee and to a board appointed by Gov. John G. Rowland, said he could not recall having conversations about the lottery's broader social responsibilities beyond generating revenue.

"Those types of decisions are made at the legislative level," Vance said. "Our role is to carry out the mandate we're given."

The governor's hand-picked chairman of the lottery's board of directors, lawyer Paul Corey, declined to comment for this article.

While the Connecticut Lottery Corp.'s current ad campaign insists that the games are all about "fun," non-industry experts attribute heavy betting at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum to a combination of the buyer's economic frustration and the seller's deliberate targeting of that market.

"People play their dreams," said Boston College management Professor Richard McGowan.

Because most of the payouts from lottery games are relatively small, which is especially true of the widely popular instant scratch tickets, middle-class people are less tempted by them, McGowan said.

"If you're living in Bridgeport working several jobs, winning $500 or $600 in an instant game is going to make a big difference," he said. "Middle-class people will only play when the Powerball jackpot gets in the millions."

But McGowan said there's another reason lottery play is so high among the poor. Because many can't hop into a reliable family car to test their luck at one of the casinos in southeastern Connecticut - which give much better odds - the availability of lottery tickets in thousands of bars, gas stations and corner stores gives the state a substantial monopoly on legal gambling among the poor.

That helps explain what McGowan calls the "predatory odds" of the state games.

"They're just like the old-time bookies," he said. "Clearly, the Mafia knew that they were the only place for these people to come gamble."

Casino games generally return to the players between 80 percent and 90 percent of the money wagered. The Connecticut lottery is closer to 65 percent.

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