FYI Guy analyzed data of the more than 185 million tickets sold last year in Washington state to come up with his breakdown of which ZIP codes fared the best.
As the Mega Millions jackpot hit a record $1.6 billion, Lotto fever gripped the nation last week. But maybe not as much in Seattle as most places.
It may have never occurred to you — it hadn’t to me — that lottery participation varies greatly from city to city. Market research shows that it does indeed, and that here in the Seattle area, we have one of the lowest rates of participation in the U.S.
You’ve probably heard the old joke that, because the odds of winning are so low, the lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math. If that’s true, then we must be pretty good at math.
According to data from market-research giant Nielsen, slightly fewer than 30 percent of adults in King and Snohomish counties say they’ve purchased a lottery ticket in the past 30 days. While that’s still a lot of people, it’s well bellow the national average of 41 percent.
Seattle ties Oklahoma City for the fifth-lowest rate of lottery participation among 75 large metro areas. And that ranking is even more notable when you consider that the four areas with lower participation — Honolulu, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and Birmingham, Alabama — are all located in one of the five states that have no lottery (it was six states, but a lottery bill just passed in Mississippi). Folks who want to buy tickets in any of those places have to cross state lines. That’s especially difficult when you live in Hawaii, which probably explains why Honolulu has the lowest percentage of lottery participation, at just 4 percent.
Pittsburgh has the highest percentage of folks who try their luck at the lottery, at about 55 percent, according to Nielsen, which surveyed more than 400,000 people nationally from December 2015 to May 2018.
If you do play the lottery, and you buy your tickets in South Seattle, here’s a tip: Stick with scratch games. That advice is based on my analysis of data on the more than 185 million tickets sold last year, which was provided by Washington’s Lottery.
The data show that of the 2.3 million jackpot-games tickets (Lotto, Powerball, etc.) sold in Rainier Valley’s 98118 last year, just 4 percent — 90,000 — won anything. That ties for the unluckiest ZIP code in Washington for “draw” tickets, in which you try to pick the winning numbers, or let the computer “Quick Pick” them for you. And the adjacent ZIP code to the north, 98144, had the third-worst luck, with just 4.5 percent winning draw tickets. Statewide, an average of 9 percent of draw tickets win something.
Both these ZIP codes fared much better in the winning percentage of scratch-game tickets.
I asked Kristi Weeks, Washington’s Lottery director of legal services, if anything could explain why South Seattle did so poorly with draw tickets, but there really isn’t any explanation other than bad luck.
“It’s all random,” Weeks said, “and it’s all run through the same computer system.”
The small town of Wilkeson, in Pierce County, had much better fortune. This gateway community to Mount Rainier was the best place to buy a draw ticket in 2017, with one out of five tickets returning something in its 98396 ZIP code.
Scratch tickets have a much higher rate of winning than draw tickets, with the statewide average at about 26 percent. Nearly all of the state’s ZIP codes performed very close to average, but there were a few outliers.
Snoqualmie Pass’ 98068 was the place to buy a scratch ticket in 2017, with nearly half (46 percent) winning something. At the opposite end of the spectrum, downtown Bellingham’s 98227 had the worst luck, at just 8 percent.
Of course, a good or bad performance in 2017 doesn’t mean a whole lot for 2018.
Most winning tickets aren’t a huge payday. For the lower-price-point tickets, the majority of winnings are $20 or less. Many are just break-even tickets — you get back what you paid.
If you consider luck in terms of dollar amounts rather than the percentage of winning tickets, the luckiest place in the state last year was a Safeway in Poulsbo, where somebody purchased a $9.4 million winning Lotto ticket. It’s not $1.6 billion, but still pretty good.
The lottery is not without its critics. While participation is, of course, purely voluntary, poorer people are a lot more likely to play the lottery. More affluent people may think of the lottery as a source of fun and entertainment, but poorer people tend to view it as an investment — and given the odds, it’s not a very good one. And of course, the lottery is a form of gambling, a potentially addictive behavior.
But the state also depends on revenue generated by the lottery.
“Every dollar that comes in serves the state of Washington,” Weeks said.
The majority of the money goes back to the winners. Last year, that added up to more than $420 million. Then there’s education, which received $127 million in 2017. Some of that money goes to help young people from lower-income backgrounds, or who have been in the foster care system, to go to college.
Retailers are another important beneficiary. They make 5 percent of every dollar that they sell, and also get a bonus prize if they sell a big winning ticket.
“Some of our smaller retailers really rely on that income to keep their doors open,” Weeks said.