The casino misery toll

The poor and blacks will suffer most from the seductive lure of games where the house always wins

As state lawmakers move closer to cutting a deal on casino gambling in Massachusetts they should carefully ponder the human downsides as much as they consider the revenue upside.

The upside, of course, is that the casinos and slot houses are projected to bring in significant tax dollars to state coffers, subsidizing state budgets in uncertain fiscal times.

Millions of dollars in licensees fees are all but guaranteed according to the language of the legislation. The state will bring in between $300 million and $800 million annually, according to estimates. Moreover, it is projected that 15,000 jobs will be created between the manpower needed to construct the three gambling houses and staffing at each site when the casinos are finally opened to the public.

The Senate is likely to pass the legislation next week, and Gov. Deval Patrick has indicated that he will sign the bill into law when it arrives on his desk.

The human downsides of bringing casinos to the Bay State, however, should give us all pause.  By almost all scientific and sociological accounts, gambling negatively and disproportionally impacts the poor and minorities, especially blacks and specifically black women.  

Casinos prey most on those who are already vulnerable to the unpredictable vicissitudes of life; they are snake eyes to those at the economic and class margins of society.  The less educated and poorer you are, the more likely you will frequent casinos to gamble away important resources.

Research over the years confirm that the poor, regardless of race, frequent and spend inordinate amounts of their income at casinos. And they are more likely to develop gambling addictions than people of higher income. But casinos have an even more devastating impact on blacks, especially if they live near a casino.

A 2004 Harvard study found “African Americans have a higher rate of compulsive gambling than whites, and the rate is about twice the average among those living within 50 miles of a casino.” A 2009 study in Florida reported that black women, the most gambling prone group in the state, were 51 percent more likely to be compulsive gamblers than the state’s black male population.  In a 2005 Indiana study, 20 percent of the callers to a gambling problem hotline were black though African-Americans make-up just over 8 percent of the state’s population. 

To the state Legislature’s credit, the Massachusetts casino bill would allocate $25 million for gambling addiction treatment. But even this offers a twisted logic in which the state is committing to treating a problem that it will cause.  What’s more, it is the poor who disproportionally subsidize state revenues through their uncontrollable habits.

Meet the Author

Lawmakers in the Commonwealth are breezily moving toward bringing gambling into the Bay State because of the revenue and jobs casino proponents have touted. But is it all worth it, especially in the wake of the potential social problems it might create? The Legislature and Gov. Patrick would be wise to consider the misery casino gambling may bring to many state residents, especially the poor who will see the bright lights of a casino as their only hope for grabbing a piece of the American Dream.

Kevin Peterson is executive director of the New Democracy Coalition, a Boston-based organization focusing on civic literacy, civic policy, and electoral justice, and co-chair of the Massachusetts Black Empowerment Coalition.