Religion & Liberty Online

How Lotteries Can Help the Poor Save Money

save-to-winPeople who play the lottery with an income of less than $20,000 annually spent an average of $46 per month on lottery tickets. That comes out to more than $550 per year and it is nearly double the amount spent in any other income bracket.

Those who have the least spend an inordinate percentage of their income every year on lottery tickets (estimates vary from 4-9 percent). Yet while it is irrational for those in poverty to waste their limited resources on a one in 176 million chance, there is something almost rational in the reasoning for doing so. In 2012, The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson noted that,

For the desperately poor, lotteries perform a role not unlike the obverse of insurance. Rather than pay a small sum of money in exchange for the guarantee of protection that you’ll need in the future, you pay a small sum of money in exchange for the small probability that you’ll win money to help your lot right away. It is, for lack of a better term, a kind of aspirational insurance.

But what if the poor could pay a small sum to themselves (in the form of savings) and still reap the “aspirational insurance” benefits of the lottery? As the New York Times reports, some credit unions and non-profits are doing just that:

While building up savings offers the best route out of poverty, the glamourless grind of socking away a dollar here and there has a tough time competing with the heady fantasy of a Mega Millions jackpot. But instead of attacking lotteries, a growing number of credit unions and nonprofit groups are using them to encourage low-income families to save.

They offer what are known as prize-linked savings accounts, which essentially treat every deposit as a ticket in a prizewinning raffle. The idea is to offer the thrill of gambling without the risk. Even perennial losers keep their savings.

These accounts have won support from a rare combination of liberal poverty advocates and conservatives who like the private market-based approach and emphasis on personal responsibility. In Congress, bills to modify federal banking laws and permit more financial institutions to offer prize-linked accounts have Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. And several states, including Indiana, Connecticut and New York, have modified their banking laws to allow credit unions to offer such programs.

So far, the programs seem to be helping to increase the savings of those with low-incomes. Within a year of the introduction of the Save to Win product in Michigan in 2009, more than 11,500 Michigan residents opened and saved $8.5 million in prized-linked savings accounts.

Doorways to Dreams, the organization behind Save to Win, is also developing a product that would be similar to state-run lottery tickets (PDF):

Imagine walking into your local convenience store, going up to the counter, and asking to buy a $15 savings ticket from the range of lottery ticket offerings. You buy your ticket, knowing that unlike any other lottery offering, this one is a “no lose” ticket. Not only do you get to keep your $15 but you also have earned chances to win, both immediate and future prizes, with each ticket bought.

You take your savings ticket, and like any lottery scratch ticket, you get giddy with excitement as you take out your penny to scratch to see if you have won. You quickly learn that you have been rewarded with a $15 instant prize. You redeem your winnings and instead of taking cash you decide to buy one more ticket – one to gift to your daughter.

You walk out of the store, with your $30 of saving tickets in hand and the excitement of knowing that you still have more chances to win.


Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).