Financial records for 41 state lotteries that end their fiscal year in June show 28 had higher sales than the year before. Seventeen of those states set all-time sales records.
Kate Sweeny, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside, said an uptick in lottery sales largely occurs when people feel a lack of control over events larger than themselves, such as the economy.
Jeff Anderson, head of the executive committee of the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries, which represents 52 lotteries in the USA and Canada, said sales growth most often reflects changes in lottery games.
"In general, the play is inexpensive entertainment," said Anderson, who is also director of the Idaho State Lottery. "I have not seen any empirical evidence that indicates in a down economy, people play more."
Yet that's just what a 2004 Cornell University study found. "We see that lottery sales go up as the economy gets bad — but we don't see people spending more on relatively inexpensive other forms of entertainment," said Garrick Blalock, associate professor of economics at Cornell and a co-author of the study.
California had the highest percentage gain over 2010 — 13.2% — to $3.44 billion, just shy of a record $3.6 billion set in 2006, spokesman Alex Traverso said.
Arkansas's growth was higher at 21%, but its lottery didn't start until September 2009, so the comparison with fiscal year 2010 was not over a full previous year.
Arizona posted a record $583.5 million in ticket sales and Missouri, topped $1 billion for the first time.
"I think it has a lot to do with the economy," said Abel Reynoso, who works at a gas station that sells lottery tickets in Desert Hot Springs, Calif.
"People are getting desperate."
"When it gets past a certain amount, I always play it," added Roberta Orsi, 60, a Palm Springs, Calif., resident who says she's played the California lottery since it began in October 1985.
Multiple studies of state lotteries have found that those with low incomes spend a higher percentage of their income on lottery tickets than wealthier individuals. That, combined with the correlation between a bad economy and increased lottery sales, raises questions, Blalock says.
"If what looks like is going on is actually going on, states are solving budget shortfalls with what effectively amounts to a regressive tax on the poor," he said. [Editor: Yet there doesn't seem to be any evidence that the increase of sales is driven disproportionately by the poor, so this is just an opinion.]
Buying lottery tickets is a "voluntary transaction," Anderson countered.
"If responsible adults want to decide how they want to spend their entertainment dollars, it's a little trite to say, 'You shouldn't spend that much,'" he said. "Maybe somebody can't afford two tickets to the movies, but they can afford $2 in scratch-offs. We still have freedom in the United States," he said.
Anderson questioned the significance of studies indicating the poor spend a higher percentage of their income on the lottery.
"Are they spending the bread money?" he said. "Are the children starving? Are they forced out of their home because they are playing CashWord? I don't see that."
J.P. Sira, owner of a 7-Eleven store in Palm Springs, Calif., said one thing is certain. Patrons play in the hope of getting rich quick.
"I've never seen anybody say, 'I want to help schools,'" he said.
Top record-setting states
Top 10 states that set lottery ticket sales records in fiscal year 2011, ranked by percentage of increase in their sales over fiscal year 2010:
- Arizona – 6%
- Iowa – 5.9%
- Pennsylvania – 4.6%
- Ohio – 4.4%
- Tennessee – 4.2%
- Washington – 4.1%
- Colorado – 3.5%
- Virginia – 3.1%
- Illinois – 3%
- Missouri – 3%