TRENTON, N.J. — The slumping economy seemingly hasn't stopped lottery players in New Jersey who want to cash in on their dreams.
The state lottery raised more money in ticket sales in the fiscal year ending June 30 than ever before in its 40-year history — a record $2.6 billion — despite a recession that has seen people's discretionary spending drop in other areas.
Regular customers at the 7-Eleven on Route 9 in Northfield said the state can thank them for their generosity in the last year.
"I haven't seen any of the profits," said Bill Cusack, 72, a retiree from Northfield who has played since its inception in 1970.
"I only play a couple dollars a week. I've won $85 in all those years," he said. "My wife thinks I'm nuts for paying $2 per week."
The odds of winning Mega Millions are 1 in 175 million.
To put that in perspective, one's odds of winning the big prize are not much improved by actually buying a ticket, economist Doug Walker said.
He is an associate professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Walker said some, but not all, state lotteries are faring better than other forms of gambling in the recession.
Pennsylvania and West Virginia saw lottery revenues drop during the last fiscal year. Kentucky and North Carolina saw significant increases.
"People are worried about the recession and cut back on the amount they gamble," he said.
"Generally, people don't expect too seriously to win a big jackpot."
But each ticket provides a dollar's worth of escapist entertainment, even if the players have no real expectation of winning.
"This is the only legal way of going overnight from an average person to a multimillionaire. Why not get an escape and at least think about how good things could be?" he said. "Most people have an idea the odds are pretty bad. But it's fun to think about what it would be like to win."
Joe Weinert, an analyst with Spectrum Gaming in Galloway Township, said people view the lottery differently than other kinds of gambling.
"My sense is the lottery advertises heavily life-changing events. For a certain segment of the population, that resonates," he said.
While people might buy a single lottery ticket each week, they usually spend far more on a typical trip to a casino, he said. The typical gambler spends $60 to $85 per visit, according to industry estimates, he said.
"As soon as the recession hit, patrons held onto their wallets a lot tighter," he said. "That said, I would not be surprised if certain people perhaps gamble more than they should in a bid to turn a little bit of money into a lot."
Lottery spokesman Dominick Demarco said it was impossible to say what motivates New Jersey residents to play the lottery at any particular time.
"I don't know what goes through people's heads before they play," he said. "We've had people play Pick-6 Lotto since we had it. People love the Instant Ticket game. People find our games fun and exciting and they always have."
State lotteries routinely introduce new games to spur interest.
"When we put out a game like 'Elvis' or 'Sinatra,' if you're a fan, and you don't normally play an Instant game, you might play it," he said.
States work hard to promote their lotteries. The Pennsylvania Lottery uses a groundhog named Gus. Virginia has "Lady Luck," the star of a series of humorous TV spots.
New Jersey spent $10 million last year in advertising for the lottery, playing off the slogan, "Give your dreams a chance."
A TV commercial in 2007 played up this angle with a woman talking in her sleep next to a lottery ticket on the nightstand.
"Castle in Europe; 25-karat diamond ring; shoes, lots of shoes; staff of personal shoppers," she mumbles.
"Thanks to the Mega Millions from the New Jersey Lottery, now you can dream bigger than ever," the announcer croons.
"The lottery is one of the few programs that brings in more money for the state budget than it spends. Promotion is vital to fulfilling its mission of raising money for education and programs for the poor," said Andrew Pratt, spokesman for the state Department of the Treasury.
The lottery raised $924 million in the last fiscal year to support public programs, including community colleges, school nutrition and several other state agencies that serve veterans and disabled residents.
A steady stream of customers at the 7-Eleven suggested the lottery remains a popular diversion.
"Sometimes I say to myself, 'I'm done with this,'" said Sofia Jaghab, 58, of Northfield, after she bought a Pick-3 ticket.
But she usually finds the temptation of the daily drawings too irresistible to resist and comes back to press her luck.
"I play my lucky numbers. To me, I feel like they're lucky," she said.
Rob Wunschel, of Northfield, said people are reaching for a little fantasy, just as movie theaters fared well during the Great Depression.
"Reality is tough today. The more troubles people have, the more they need that escapism," he said.
Wunschel bought a Pick-6 ticket. But the casino gaming supervisor said he is all-too familiar with the odds to bother dreaming about how he might spend his fortune.
But Hamilton Township resident Jason Bishop, 35, said he practically has his course charted after he hits the jackpot, buys a Winnebago and takes his family on the road.
"I'll take a big old circle around the continental United States — with a few zigs and zags," he said.