Thirteen percent of US citizens play the lottery every week. The average household spends around $540 annually on lotteries and poor households spend considerably more than the average. The high demand for lotteries, especially among the poor, has led many to suggest that we use them to promote some other good. Los Angeles, for example, has recently discussed giving voters lottery tickets–a great idea if we want to encourage more voting by uninformed people with a penchant for get-rich-quick schemes. What could go wrong?
A somewhat better idea is to use lotteries to promote saving. Prize linked savings (PLS) accounts offer savers pro-rata lottery tickets based on how much they save. The average return on a PLS account can be the same as on regular account but the interest rate is lowered to make up for the small probability of a big gain. It’s illegal for banks in the United States to offer lotteries but a few credit unions have experimented with PLS accounts and they are used in some 20 other countries around the world.
Does the option of saving in a PLS account increase total savings or does it merely reallocate savings? In a new paper, Atalay, Bakhtiar, Cheung and Slomin run an experiment in which participants allocate a budget to consumption, saving, lottery tickets, and a PLS account. They conclude:
…the introduction of a PLS account indeed increases total savings quite dramatically (on average by 12 percentage points), and that the demand for the PLS account comes from reductions in lottery expenditures and current consumption. We further show that these results are stronger among study participants with the lowest reported savings on the survey.
Thus, PLS accounts appear to be a kind of crafty nudge, a way to trick the get-rich-quick brain module to save more.
If we allow PLS accounts, the poor may save more and in a competitive bank market the return on PLS accounts will trump the lousy returns offered by state lotteries. Win, win. If we deregulate all kinds of lotteries, however, I have little doubt that entrepreneurs will come up with schemes that will easily trump PLS accounts–but without the social benefit of encouraging saving among the poor. As a libertarian, I can live with that but as a political economist I wonder how well we can draw the line between banning gambling and allowing gambling so long as it’s tied to a nice nudge.