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November 25th, 2009 MARTY SMITH | Dr. Know
 

Dr. Know

     
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Oregon Lottery billboards proclaim “222 millionaires and counting.” Yet the actual “million dollar” payout is 50 grand for 20 years. Is the State of Oregon playing fast and loose with the definition of a millionaire?

— Jerry M., Portland

At very least, they’re playing fast and loose with the definition of “counting.” Estimates vary, but the consensus among experts seems to be that anywhere from one-fifth to one-third of big lottery winners subsequently run into major financial problems. So even if 222 people did become millionaires, it’s a safe bet that at least 50 of them can no longer claim that title.

That said, your implication that all our Megabucks winners wind up with a measly $50k annuity is false. In 1990, Oregon’s lottery became the first in the nation to offer its big winners the option of one lump-sum payment rather than annual checks. (In a bureaucratic example of hope springing eternal, this is called the “Investment Plan,” rather than, say, the “Hookers and Blow Plan.”) Of 169 post-1990 winners, 95 have opted for the giant novelty check.

So it’s really more like 95 millionaires, right? Not so fast, chum. If you take the lump sum, you only get half the face value of the prize, on the somewhat disingenuous theory that you’ll make up the difference through judicious investing over the next 25 years. Given this rule and taxes, you have to win more like three million to actually pocket seven figures. $3M is pretty close to the average payout, so it’s likely that at least a third of cash winners didn’t clear the million-dollar mark.

Thus, you’re right: There aren’t 222 of those top-hat-and-mustache guys from Monopoly running around. Nevertheless, the most serious objection to playing is still the fact that you’re not gonna win.

 
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