January is a cold and often rather miserable month, with the weather being dreich and cold and money being rather hard to come by after the expenses and indulgences of Christmas. It’s not too surprising then that many people reach out for the vaguest possibilities of light in the darkness in January, and one of those ways that people try and spice up their lives is the lottery.
This month, on both sides of the Atlantic, people have had the chance to play for record jackpots in their lotteries. Here in the UK a record £66 million jackpot was shared by two ticket winners, one of whom was revealed today as couple David and Carol Martin from Hawick in Scotland. Their prize of £33 million is the largest anyone has walked away with in National Lottery history, even though the prize was shared.
That sum of money is dwarfed enormously by the Powerball draw that takes place tonight in America. Should someone pick their numbers just right, they will win $1.5 billion. They will become a billionaire in an instant. Life-changing doesn’t quite cover what that amount of money will do for anyone should they walk away with all that money.
The Lottery is often called a tax on optimism, or a tax on hope. And it’s true that people can play the Lottery forever, just for the chance of striking it rich and being able to free themselves of work and bills, but never win anything more than a pound or two here and there. The only time in the history of the UK’s National Lottery that the average win for a ticket was higher than the cost of buying it was indeed last Saturday. It’s still not worth it in tonight’s Powerball.
The Lottery is a tiny bit of escapism that has the power to really chance the lives of a few people. I play it and I welcome the opportunity to do so. I do this in the full knowledge that my chances of winning are miniscule and that the odds of my numbers being picked are less likely than having some outrageous disaster like being trampled by a woolly mammoth happen to me. But I still like to hope.
But the real strength of the lottery, I think, is in what it can do for the rest of society – those who aren’t the big winners.
Here in the UK, the National Lottery has become one of the largest charitable organisations in the country – providing grants to charities and projects the length and breadth of these islands to help develop communities and give chances to people that have none. It’s raised over £34 billion since its inception in 1994. That’s what your £2 a ticket goes towards, not just a 1 in millions chance at winning a jackpot. This is a tremendous force of social redistribution.
I believe that the lottery has even more potential to change the lives of people, by eschewing the megabucks jackpots that’ll only ever serve the few and replacing it with bigger prizes at the lower end, so that more peoples’ lives can be changed and changed remarkably at that.
Imagine this. Instead of the $1.5 billion jackpot in America tonight going to just 1 person, how about $1 million going to 1,500 people? Or $100,000 going to 15,000 people? Or $10,000 going to 150,000 people? These sums of money would help people pay their bills, give their kids that extra present at Christmas and make their lives much, much easier. That would be a far better incentive for people to play when the chances of changing your live was all that stronger.
Of course it’s the big jackpots that draw people in to play the lottery. That’s why sales of tickets for last Saturday’s draw were astronomical and why perhaps over a billion tickets will be bought for tonight’s Powerball. But if people had a real chance in these lotteries to better their lives then it could be even more of a genuine force for good, rather than a shot in the dark. If people saw the Lottery fixing things for people like them round about their community then it would really be something that changes our society for the better.
After these jackpots return to ‘normal’ and the prizes go back to being chump change, there will still be those thousands of people hoping for the Lottery to change their lives. It might be the same rose-tinted optimism that I use when choosing my numbers, but wouldn’t it be nice if it really could change people’s lives?