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THE DREAM COMBO: 4-23-38-46-MB 23

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CHICAGO — Across the country, Americans plunked down an estimated $1.5 billion on the longest of long shots: an infinitesimally small chance to win what could end up being the single biggest lottery payout the world has ever seen.

The numbers drawn Friday night in Atlanta were 2-4-23-38-46, Mega Ball 23. Lottery officials expected to release details about possible winners a couple of hours after the 11 p.m. Eastern drawing.

Forget about how the $640 million Mega Millions jackpot could change the life of the winner. It’s a collective wager that could fund a presidential campaign several times over, make a dent in struggling state budgets or take away the gas worries and grocery bills for thousands of middle-class citizens.

And it’s a cheap investment for the chance of a big reward, no matter how long the odds – 1 in 176 million.

“Twenty to thirty dollars won’t hurt,” said Elvira Bakken of Las Vegas. “I think it just gives us a chance of maybe winning our dream.”

So what exactly would happen if the country spent that $1.5 billion on something other than a distant dream?

For starters, it could cure the everyday worries of hundreds of thousands of American families hit by the Great Recession. It costs an average of $6,129 to feed the typical family for a year – meaning the cash spent on tickets could fill up the plates of 238,000 households.

As gas prices climb faster than stations can change the numbers on the signs, the money spent on tickets could fill the tanks of 685,000 households annually.

Could the money dig governments out of debt? That’s a problem that even staggering ticket sales can’t solve. It could trim this year’s expected $1.3 trillion federal deficit by just over a tenth of 1 percent. In Illinois, the money would disappear just as fast into that state’s $8 billion deficit.

On a personal level, that much money staggers. Giving $1.46 billion to a broker could purchase 2.4 million shares of Apple stock. Or consider the whimsical: A family of up to 12 could live for more than a century at Musha Cay, magician David Copperfield’s $37,000-a-night private island resort in the Exuma Cays of the Caribbean.

For the states that participate, the money spent on lotto tickets is hardly a waste. It doesn’t all end up as the winner’s personal fortune – much of it is used by states to fund education and other social service programs, which is why advocates promote the lottery.

On Friday, the lottery estimated that total ticket sales for this jackpot, which has been building up since Jan. 28, will be about $1.46 billion, said Kelly Cripe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Lottery Commission.

You’re about 20,000 times more likely to die in a car crash than win the lottery, but that doesn’t matter to most people.

“Part of it is hope. ... The average person basically has no chance of making it really big, and buying a lottery ticket is a way of raising the ceiling on what could possibly happen to you, however unlikely it may be,” said George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied how rich and poor consumers make a choice to buy lottery tickets.

The odds are much better that someone will begin their weekend a winner. Aaron Abrams, a mathematician at Emory University, said he calculated that there was only a 6 percent chance that no one would hold the winning numbers.

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