Lottery Breakage

We recently wrote about how some $8 billion in gift card value goes unredeemed in a given year, representing 10% of all gift card purchases. In the retail industry, this $8 billion gift is called “breakage.”

State lotteries, it turns out, also rake in a bit of breakage. Here’s a N.Y. Times article about winning lottery tickets that go unclaimed, citing examples of a $14 million prize in Illinois in 2005 and a $51.7 million prize in Indiana in 2002. I am guessing that the states claim far less breakage than the retail industry’s 10%, but this is still serious money — especially when you are already paying yourself a very, very healthy vigorish.

I cannot find any authoritative catalog of what percent of the pot each state keeps for itself from its lotteries, but over the years I’ve seen figures cited from 30% to 70%. Even at the low end, this would mean that our state governments rake a bigger vig than any horse track, casino, or bookie on earth.

Are people who play the lottery aware that perhaps 30% of their bet goes straight into the bookie’s pocket? I doubt it. It would be very interesting to post the vig of each state’s lottery on a web site where all players could check it out. (Does anyone know if such a site already exists? Here’s a site with links to every state lottery, but on the couple of state sites that I checked out, the vig wasn’t readily visible.) I wonder how fast the players would respond to the different rates — if neighboring states, e.g., kept 30% and 45% of the pot, respectively, would lottery players from the 45% state start flooding the 30% state until their own state lowered its vig?

Now that some state lotteries may soon be privatized, it will be interesting to see how the private firms set the vig. Will they keep it high, or even raise it, knowing that few people who play the lottery know or care? Will they make it lower in order to attract players from other states?

All lottery comments welcome.


Isn't a "privatized lottery" a "numbers racket"? I'm kind of at a loss as to how the state could authorize a private entity to run the lottery without allowing other *ahem* "organized" private entities to run their own lotteries.

Charles Bronson

I don't think knowledge of how much the bookie takes would affect most people who play the lottery. I think the numbers that encourage people to play the lottery are the fact that you only have to wager $1 and you get a chance to win $X million.


FWIW, in Indiana, lottery and casino income is roughly 600 mil per year of a total state tax take of 12.5 bil. Cigarette tax for comparison is 300 mil.
So the so-called "sin taxes" make up about 7 per cent of the budget.


Apologies for the double-post above. Thought the first one got lost in the ether. I buy a couple of lottery tix ($2, usually Powerball) each week at the drug store next to my dry cleaner.

Coincidentally, yesterday, after participating in this discussion, I checked my tickets and realized I had matched a few numbers. I took the ticket down the block, and lo and behold I had won $49.

So maybe it was just payback for the last 24.5 times I bought tix. But, bottom line?: I was delighted.


So there's added value and an unmentioned dimension thus far: his $49 prize is more valuable than the $49 he spent to get it (in nominal terms).


This article from 2002 shows the Georgia lottery having a vig of about 46%.

At 53.8 percent, Georgia's payout rate—prizes paid as a percentage of total ticket sales—is slightly higher than both the mean (52.8) and median (53.4) payout rates.


[quote]So there's added value and an unmentioned dimension thus far: his $49 prize is more valuable than the $49 he spent to get it (in nominal terms).[/quote]Sure the prize is the [i]same[/i] in nominal terms and [i]less[/i] in real terms!


Whoops! BBCode obviously doesn't work (nor does there seem to be an edit feature). And "Sure" should be "Surely".


@ snubgodtoh

I'd agree that most consumers aren't too concerned with the vig. However, it simply isn't possibly to increase vig and keep payout and odds constant without raising the cost of a ticket, which I assume consumers do care about. For instance, if the state keeps more of the money, they need to take in more to keep the jackpot high. So they either have to entice more people to buy, lowering the expected payout or they have to charge more per ticket.


In Norway, half the money is kept by the state lottery. These money go to culture, sports and science, and the lottery is actively promoting this fact.

To say that "lotteries are a tax on people who are bad at math" is to miss the point. Lots of people understand that the expected value of a lottery ticket is less than the price, but still think it's worth to spend a few dollars on it to get the excitement.

If playing the lottery is more exciting to you than going to watch a thriller at the cinema, and cheaper as well, then it makes perfect economic sense to do it...


I thought it had been shown pretty conclusively that lottery buyers don't respond to payout % as much as large jackpots. That's why many lotteries make the odds worse, so that the jackpots will get bigger and encourage more casual players to buy "just one ticket" when they normally wouldn't.


I'll get you started (in most cases, the percentage is one minus the prize money percentage, since the rest is broken up between various administrative costs and public spending):

Overall ranking of lottery sales:

CA: 50%

MA: 31%

WA: 39%

NY: 44%

MN: 41%

MI: 46%,1607,7-110-29196-4670--,00.html


Texas is working on privatizing the lottery. Just another wonderful thing our Gov. Rick Perry is doing in addition to forcing toll roads, owned and managed by companies based in Europe, down our throats.

In Texas, the lottery was established to fund education. Not only is that not happening, I don't see how privatization of a state lottery would provide the state with any type of monetary benefit and instead potentially increase the need for higher taxes to offset the money that was previously coming into the state.


I don't see how they could effectively compete on percentage vigorish. To do this, they would need to advertise, and "we only keep 25% of your money" would turn off far more people than it would attract.


I may have missed something, but I think you're barking up the wrong tree...In my eyes the number of lottery players is a function of (predominantly) pay out and probability, not what the State rakes (unless the vig is an endogenous variable that affects the former). By this rationale, I don't think the disclosure of vig variation by state would entice anyone to cross state lines for lottery purposes (holding p(win) and pay out constant) or induce any sort of "race to the bottom" strategy for state lotto commissions.


Lotteries are a tax on the stupid. I'd outlaw them, as the stupid people need what little money they have.


I misread the post and retract my former comment, but my conclusion is the same due to the law of diminishing marginal returns. ie: (the cost of making a lotto trip to state(i)) > {[(%vig(home)state)-(%vig(i)state)]*

It would undoubtedly entice frequent interstate commuters to buy foreign lotto tickets, but I doubt the net impact would be great. In fact, states may be the ones to benefit most from such disclosures (assuming they don't collude already). Coastal states with the great majority of their population living considerable distance from a border would surely set their vigs high assuming vigs have no affect on E of demand.

Whoops, never mind, I would guess all vigs are fairly homogeneous because of collusion. Going against the "cartelle" in the form of a vig war would go against a clear dominant strategy except for the extreme cases: HI and AK whom I would guess have higher vig rates.



No,no, SBGamesCone, you have it analysed all wrong. Since 1997, the Texas Lottery has contributed $8 billion to Texas School Fund.

Now the question is how much could Rick Perry get for a business that generates $8 billion in 9 years? Mr. "good hair" Perry might get $20 Billion plus a piece of the action. Maybe 10% royalty. That's why he might think about selling it.

The better question is this. Texas is republican. Why would republicans want to fund government? I thought the idea was that all government is bad.

A better idea is to just give it to their Republican friends. Tom Delay would have some great ideas. I, like all true Texans, would support that because it would keep it out of the evil government hands.


Another complicating factor: Most of the money spent on lottery tickets that doesn't go to prize money or administrative expenses goes towards public spending in the state. This isn't truly a vig because some benefit is received by the lottery player through that spending (e.g., better schools for his children). Also, there's an incentive for the lottery player to stay home so that "vig" is spent on his kids' school instead of the neighboring states' schools.


As for Montana, according to the official state lottery website (, prizes have been only 45-50% of revenues over the past 19 years for which data are available. The state then grosses 50-55% of revenues, but has costs and commissions before "keeping" anything and calling it revenue. By state law, only 45% of revenues must be returned as prizes.