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The Colorado Lottery: A chance to dream, or to deepen inequities?

Posted: 7:55 PM, Jul 29, 2022
Updated: 2022-07-29 22:12:58-04
Lottery Jackpots

DENVER — Lottery fever has hit America, as the Mega Millions jackpot tops $1.28 billion and counting ahead of Friday night’s drawing.

Though they may not realize it, every time a Coloradan buys their chance at becoming a billionaire, they’ll be kicking money towards our state parks and conservation efforts.

But, are certain groups being targeted to buy more tickets than others, and inadvertently paying more than their fair share for the parks? Denver7 went 360 on this $81 billion industry to find out.

Staunten State Park
An aerial photo shows a hiker enjoying a trail at Staunten State Park.

A stroll through the park(s)

You won’t hear the beeps and buzzes of a Mega Millions ticket machine as you meander the winding paths through Staunten State Park; but, you will feel the impacts of the Colorado Lottery. About 19% of revenue for Colorado Parks and Wildlife comes from lottery funds — a $17.6 million annual investment — according to the agency.

“The visitor center itself was about $3.2 million,” said Staunten State Park manager Zach Taylor, standing in front of picturesque windows overlooking the park from the center’s educational room. “Investments through lottery funds give us the opportunity to provide the resource, and to protect it, right? So not only are we trying to bring folks to the outdoors, but demonstrate how they can still preserve the resources that we still have in this day.”

Every single state park has received lottery funds for capital projects, ranging from visitor centers to new trails to newly paved roads for vehicles. Many conservation projects owe their success in part to lottery funds as well, CPW public information officer Joey Livingston said. He pointed to the reintroduction of the black footed ferret to Colorado as a recent example.

“Without that money, you know, we would be significantly more limited in what we’re able to do,” Livingston said.

But, here’s the follow up question: If these are programs we are all supposed to benefit from, are we all paying in to them equally?

Sean Mussenden with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism
Sean Mussenden with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism shares findings from an in-depth look at lottery retailers across the country

“Questions of equity”

That’s exactly the question a group of journalists with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism set out to answer.

“We are intensely interested in stories that center around questions of equity,” said Sean Mussenden, data editor for the Howard Center.

The Howard Center analyzed data of lotteries across the country, including Colorado’s, honing on where the tickets are predominately being sold.

“A thing we found in pretty much every state we’d looked in is that these stores tend to be concentrated in some way in communities that have lower median incomes, lower levels of education, and in many places, higher levels of African-American residents or Hispanic residents,” Mussenden said.

According to their research, neighborhoods with lottery retailers in Colorado have a lower income by about $20,000; about 31% of residents in those neighborhoods have only a high school degree or lower, compared to 22% statewide; and, they over index with Hispanic residents by about 6%.

“Most of the coverage we see around lotteries is about big jackpots, and who’s winning,” Mussenden said. “We think it makes more sense to take a systemic look at the issue.”

Responsible gaming

Colorado Lottery director Tom Seaver said looking just at the location of lottery sellers misses the full story. A better metric, he said, is data showing the make up of player demographics.

“We have about 70% chain retailers,” Seaver said. “So, you know, 7-Eleven picks their locations. Circle K picks their locations. We don’t pick their locations."

He continued, "I think it’s more important to look at the demographics of the actual players. And that’s what we have much more refined information about, because that’s what we really care about. So if you look at our player demographics, they are very, very similar to the state. We’re not over represented in lower incomes.”

The Colorado Lottery provided us with this report, showing similar demographics between its players and the state as a whole. What this data may miss, though, is the frequency in which different groups play the lottery and the amount of money they spend when they do.

Seaver said “responsible gaming” is core to the Colorado Lottery's mission, and that it was recently recognized by the World Lottery Association for its standards and best practices, receiving its highest certification.

“The way that looks in real life, for example, is that all of our retailers are required to take a training course in how to spot problem gambling at their store,” Seaver said. “We also follow very strict standards on our advertising. We don’t over promise. We make sure everybody knows that the odds are included in our advertising… It’s really about ethics, and standards that make sure we protect our players, and we don’t create a problem with problem gambling.”

Line for Mega Millions tickets at a 7-Eleven in Denver
A line of people waits to buy Mega Millions tickets at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Denver

A $2 chance to dream

At the 7-Eleven just off the intersection of Tower Road and Green Valley Ranch Boulevard in Denver, Mega Millions players have been streaming in for weeks, wanting to buy their chance at the growing jackpot. Friday night, the line wrapped through the entire store and out the door with the chance of turning a lucky player into a billionaire.

“I’m going to help a couple of my siblings pay off their mortgages,” said Richard Valdez of his plans, should he win.

Mike Zemcik also plans to help his family, but he shared his splurge item as well.

“It’s gonna be a yacht, no doubt,” he laughed.

The numbers tell these Mega Millions players they’re much more likely to be struck by lightning walking out of the store than hit the jackpot. They seemed both aware of and okay with their chances.

“Absolutely,” Zemcik said. “It’s fun, you know what I mean? It’s a break from the day-to-day.”

And with every two dollar chance to dream, there’s another hope: That it inspires these players to get out and appreciate their beautiful state, too.

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 | In-Depth explores multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 In-Depth stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com or use this form. See more 360 | In-Depth stories here.