Why only poor people win lottery jackpots in Kenya

By now you must have noticed that a majority of those ‘lucky winners’ in major, jaw-dropping jackpots in lotteries are from humble backgrounds.

Samuel Abisai, winner of the SportPesa Sh221 million worked with a Chinese firm and lived in Nairobi’s Roysambu area off the Thika Superhighway.

But if lottery is a game of chance, then anyone from any socio-economic background should stand a chance of winning. So, how come there are never jackpot winners from upscale areas such as Karen, Runda, Kitisuru or Muthaiga?

Social scientists agree that there is an inverse relationship between socio-economic status and betting. Low-income earners spend a larger share of their incomes on lottery tickets than those with higher incomes.

Demand for lottery tickets correlates not only with the level of income, but also with a general lower socio-economic status as measured by low education level, employment status and minority status of one’s ethnic community. Although it is well established that a greater proportion of low-income earners engage in betting, the question remains open as to what factors explain this socially stratified form of consumption.
Three sociological perspectives could explain the betting craze in Kenya.

The first approach assumes that factors such as low levels of education and disadvantaged socio-economic positions are associated with higher states of tension, leading to compensatory patterns of behaviour. Betting is one such pattern.

According to functionalist and deprivation theories, betting is a socially accepted way of channelling frustrations and tensions resulting from contradictory or unattainable demands imposed on individuals in modern societies. Gambling is a practice in which these tensions can be released without having a disruptive impact on the social order.

It is “a ‘safety valve’ through which the repressed wishes crowd for escape”; it compensates for the monotony of daily work routines, maintains hope for material success and relieves strain “in a socially acceptable” manner.

Compared to other forms of gambling, lotteries are especially well suited to the release of tensions. Only lotteries offer prizes that can fundamentally transform the winner’s material situation. Time and again, the jackpot from SportPesa lottery yields sums of several hundreds of millions of shillings. One of the central attractions of the game is that it evokes daydreams of desired but unachievable status positions. Bettors  “indulge in fantasies about what could be done with the prize money”. This “lure of the lottery” makes lottery tickets not a monetary investment, but rather a trigger for daydreams, a vehicle for the momentary escape from reality.

Fantasy worlds stemming from the purchase of lottery tickets are comparatively cheap. Lower social strata are excluded from most other “evocative” consumer goods that also create dream worlds, for example status goods such as fine clothing, wines or luxury cars. Because of this relative exclusion from alternative opportunities for imaginative goods consumption, one can assume that individuals from lower social strata are more likely to be drawn to lottery tickets than members of higher social strata.

A second approach sees the lower strata’s increased fascination with lotteries as a function of a culture that both emphasises beliefs in fate and luck instead of personal achievement, and lacks orientation towards the values associated with a ‘Protestant Work Ethic.’ According to German sociologist Max Weber, Protestant Work Ethic proclaims virtues of diligence, thriftiness, efficiency and profitability as well as productivity.

From this perspective, gambling is a waste of time and money, and might even undermine values of self-discipline, prudence and sober rationality. To quote Gerda Reith, the professor of social sciences at the University of Glasgow, “The state-sponsored fantasy of the big win turns the ethos of production and accumulation on its head”. The reliance on chance moves gambling close to fatalism, superstition and magic. Participation in the lottery can be regarded as a flight from the all-embracing merit principle of modern societies: “The element of chance also provides an escape from the rationality of the culture, since gambling permits one to rely on fate and superstition.”

A central attraction of lotteries seems to be that everybody, independent of their skill, class, education, or family background, has an equal chance of success.

This attraction, however, should vary with social position: members of the lower social strata should find the egalitarian distribution of chance more attractive because their opportunities for success are greater if outcomes are randomly distributed compared to a situation where meritocratic or ascriptive mechanisms prevail.

Lottery has peer group influence

A third explanation for the socially-stratified demand in lottery markets focuses on the effects of social network. For instance, in a study in the Spanish lottery market, the exceptionally high demand for lottery tickets can be traced back to the widespread tradition of sharing lottery tickets by playing in syndicates among friends, relatives or colleagues.

In a recent study that analysed the motives for playing in syndicates, the authors show that syndicate players share tickets not primarily out of economic reasons of maximising their chances, but mostly to establish cohesive social groups and to maintain friendships. Therefore, I assume that syndicates positively affect demand by making lottery participation part of social interaction and group life. Shared tickets and the activity around playing the lottery constitute a group identity.
As a group activity, the utility of a shared lottery ticket is not defined primarily by the expected monetary return from a ticket — although in the minds of the players winning remains an evoked possibility — but by the secondary social effects which evolve from membership in the informal group. The lottery ticket generates shared experiences and forms a basis for communication. Affirmative attitudes toward gambling are promoted in the group. Losses are less likely to stop future participation, since quitting would threaten the continuity of the group or one’s own group membership.

In addition to the effects from these voluntary syndicates, we can also assume effects of social contagion through the player’s social surroundings. The gambling habits of close ties should have an influence on gambling participation. So the next time SportPesa announce the jackpot winner, you can be sure the winner will not be from Karen.

Edwin Wanjawa is a sociology lecturer at Pwani University.

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