Legalized Gambling: Economic Boom or Social Bust?

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The gambling industry is thriving—but at what cost? Though many communities view the burgeoning gambling industry as an economic savior, able to fund needed social programs, it exacts a sobering social price. What does Scripture say about this growing phenomenon?


Type "gambling" in any Internet search engine. Scores and scores of listings will pop up. You will find casinos across the United States, along with a host of "virtual casinos" that exist solely online. The gambling industry is thriving-and has gone high-tech.

Since the mid-1970s, gambling has been America's fastest-growing industry. Wagers in the U.S. are currently approaching half a trillion dollars annually! In the 20 years from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, gambling revenues increased by an incredible 2,000 percent!

Many communities view the burgeoning gambling industry as an economic savior. State lotteries are hailed as a way to finance underfunded public school systems, while new casinos are lauded as a source of thousands of new jobs. Casinos in many areas have made high-profile contributions to worthy causes. Increasing numbers of citizens in the U.S. and Canada have found these developments encouraging-at least on the surface. Gambling is definitely on the move. But is it a good move?

In recent years, legalized gambling has exploded far beyond Las Vegas and Reno. Many think it has now achieved Main Street respectability. Polls show that since the mid-1990s, an increasing majority of American adults consider casino gambling acceptable for all. Long associated in the public mind with organized crime, gambling's image is now being rehabilitated as the key to economic development through tourism, in locations as diverse as Davenport, Iowa and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Gambling comes in many guises. Whether in riverboats or land-based casinos, whether one prefers card games, roulette wheels or slot machines, games of chance are available to part men and women of all ages from their money. Traditional modes of gambling, such as horse and dog races, are now joined by such high-tech innovations as video poker machines, which "have multiplied by the thousands in Texas in the two years since operators beat back an anti-gambling crusade by former Governor George W. Bush and repeated attacks from legislators" (The Dallas Morning News, April 1, 2001).

Gambling is pervasive in the U.S.; some form of gambling is legal in 48 of the 50 states. Thirty-eight states operate lotteries, and pari-mutuel betting is legal in 42 states. One-third of Indian tribes in the U.S. have gaming operations, according to the National Indian Gaming Association. Even many churches "get in on the act" with bingo nights and lotteries.

What is behind the current surge to legalize more and more forms of gambling after many decades of attempting to suppress it? Why have public attitudes toward gambling shifted in recent years? Is gambling a harmless form of recreation, or does it pose a threat to society? What are the moral principles involved, and what will happen to a society that permits-and encourages-a thriving gambling industry?

Gambling's Long History

When did gambling originate? The Greeks had a myth in which Zeus seduced Tyche, the goddess of fortune, who bore him a daughter "whose only pleasures lay in inventing games of chance, gloating over the quarrels they caused, and encouraging depressed losers to suicide. Tyche endowed her with houses that had everlasting lamps at their doors to attract passers-by" (Alan Wykes, Gambling, p. 35).

Clearly, gambling goes back a long, long time. A tablet found in the Great Pyramid of Cheops near Gizeh, Egypt, related the Egyptian story of how the 365-day year came to be. According to the myth, the year originally had 360 days but, in an ancient dice game held with the moon, five new days were won. While this story tells us nothing about the real origin of the calendar, it does tell us that gambling with dice goes back at least 5,000 years!

At Thebes, Egypt, archaeologists have found ivory dice dated to the 16th century bc. Ancient records in India and China detail various games of chance. Clearly, gambling played a prominent role in many ancient cultures. There are even records of ancient legislation aimed at punishing cheaters and charlatans.

Ancient Roman law sought to suppress gambling, making it legal only during the December festival of Saturnalia. Loaded dice have been found beneath volcanic ash in the ruins of Pompeii. Gambling was popular in Europe through the medieval period, and was widely engaged in by virtually all classes, from kings to peasants. Modern playing card designs date to medieval times.

In American history, gambling played a big part in making the "wild west" wild! Many Western gunfights had their origin at saloon gambling tables. Wherever there was money, professional gamblers soon arrived. The mining camps and boomtowns of the West were places where fortunes were laboriously extracted from the earth, then easily lost in whisky and a "friendly" game of cards.

The riverboats that plied the Mississippi river were also havens for gamblers. Between 1835 and 1860, when Southern planters started home with large bankrolls following the sale of their cotton crops, cardsharps were always on hand to snag the unwary. Before and after the U.S. Civil War, young Easterners heading west to begin a new life often carried large amounts of cash from the sale of their farms and other property back East. This, of course, made these generally inexperienced and gullible young farmers a tempting target for professional gamblers.

By the early 20th century, gambling was outlawed throughout the U.S. In 1910, Nevada became the last state in the Union to make it illegal; then in 1931 Nevada became the first state to reintroduce legalized gambling, to supplement dwindling tax revenues from mining, an industry hit hard by the Depression.

At the height of their influence, Victorian-era moralists had succeeded in suppressing gambling as a social vice, but they had been unable to change the hearts of their fellow citizens. Throughout the "Roaring Twenties," gambling was identified with the decadence glamorized by the world of gangsters and "speakeasies." Gambling took place behind closed doors, in secret. Most citizens, working hard to provide for their families, considered it "not nice."

Gambling's Role in Modern Society

In 19th century America, Louisiana closed the last state-sponsored lottery in 1892, a holdover from the corrupt Reconstruction period. Seventy-two years passed before another state-sponsored lottery was re-launched in the U.S., this time in New Hampshire in 1964. Since then, state-sponsored lotteries have spread to nearly every state in the Union.

In 1993, gambling overtook baseball as the U.S. national pastime. That year, for the first time, Americans made more trips to casinos (92 million according to a study cited by U.S. News & World Report) than to major league baseball parks. Clearly, gambling has gained public acceptance and even respectability to a degree unimaginable only a few years ago.

Throughout the 1990s, proponents of gambling made rosy projections about the economic benefits that would come from the growing gambling industry. The October 1993 issue of American Demographics predicted that 500,000 new jobs would be created during the 1990s as a direct result of gambling. Gambling is often presented in this way, as an economic panacea for struggling communities.

But is gambling really an economic boon? As illustrated by a U.S. News & World Report article on the subject, experience has shown that communities generally overestimate gambling revenues before startup, and never seem to receive enough to solve the large-scale social problems. And as gambling revenues increase, other revenues generally decrease accordingly. Studies examining the economic effect of gambling have shown that casinos produce short-term economic gains that do not last. In the long term, many other businesses near casinos decline and die, causing a loss of jobs and revenue that the gambling industry cannot offset.

Even the casinos themselves are not as profitable as many imagine. While the first casinos and lotteries to open in a region are generally quite profitable, revenues decline once competitors open their doors in neighboring states. "In Biloxi, Mississippi, for example, slot revenues at first topped about $207 per machine per day. A year later when competitors moved in, however, the daily win-per-machine figure dipped to $109" (USN&WR, Mar. 14, 1994, p. 46).

This phenomenon is not unique to the United States; Canadian Business magazine in its May 1994 issue cited a study indicating that gambling does not increase the economy's discretionary income; it merely shifts it. University of Massachusetts urban-planning professor Robert Goodman concluded that casinos sucked money away from existing businesses as diverse as car dealerships, sports arenas, movie theaters and clothing stores. Professor Goodman cited the example of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Between 1978 (when the casinos first opened) and 1994 (when the study was completed), approximately 100 of the city's 250 restaurants closed their doors. Money spent gambling was money not spent elsewhere.

As states grow more dependent on lottery money to fund essential services, they face a dilemma when competition causes gambling revenues to decline. To maintain revenues, they must introduce new gimmicks to attract and hold gamblers. As a result, they promote and encourage lottery spending by those least able to afford it. Studies have consistently shown that lotteries, promising overnight riches, appeal most to the poor and less educated, and to welfare recipients. Lotteries attract a core of frequent players; a study conducted for the National GamblingImpactStudy Commission found that "10 percent of lottery players account for 68 percent of lottery sales" (Reader's Digest, Mar. 2001, p. 158).

Legalized gambling brings other hidden costs, from beefed-up police needs to the expense of treating those addicted to gambling. A Gallup poll estimated that 5 percent of the population has a serious gambling problem. As casinos multiply, the number of problem gamblers cannot help but increase. Annual losses by gamblers run into billions of dollars-money siphoned off from other areas of the economy.

One frequently overlooked hidden cost involves children and the elderly. According to a recent Reader's Digest article: "Today, more kids gamble than are involved with drugs, smoking or drinking" (Mar. 2001, p. 160). While it is illegal for minors to play lotteries, studies show that in states such as Texas and Louisiana about one-third of adolescents buy tickets. Additionally, many casinos run "free" shuttles to retirement homes, conveniently timed to coincide with the arrival of Social Security checks at the beginning of the month, exploiting an often lonely and vulnerable segment of society.

Gambling can exert a corrupting influence on government. In the early 1990s, Louisiana's citizens witnessed the sorry spectacle of $1,000 "campaign contributions" being passed out to state senators on the floor of the legislature. Members of the state House of Representatives were more discreet: they lined up at the door of the Speaker's office to file through and collect their "contributions." Some called this hypocritical, since these legislators had taken an oath to uphold the state constitution, which still called upon them to "suppress gambling" within the state. The lawmakers addressed this apparent conflict of interest by redefining lotteries, casino games and betting on horses as "gaming" rather than "gambling." While most politicians lack the brazenness of the Louisiana legislature, U.S. congressional and Presidential candidates in 1998 received more than $6 million in contributions from the gambling industry. From 1997 through 1999, the industry spent an additional $22 million lobbying federal lawmakers. It is no wonder that many politicians are ready to give the gambling industry whatever it wants.

None of these hidden costs of gambling even begin to address the problem of organized crime. The gambling industry and organized crime have had a long-time love affair reaching back to the early 20th century. Many do not understand why the newly legalized gambling industry is so important to crime syndicates; one key reason is the large amounts of cash generated by narcotics and other illegal activities. How can such vast quantities of cash be accounted for? One cannot walk into the bank and make large cash deposits day after day without serious questions being asked. Casinos are an ideal front, as illegal cash can be hidden among a casino's profits, difficult to trace. Legalized gambling, particularly land-based casinos and riverboats, thus plays a vital role fronting for organized crime in America.

Gambling and Morality

Gambling is not just an economic problem; it is also a moral problem. In the past, gambling's immorality was taken for granted by large segments of society, but today even many churchgoers approve of it. What does the growth of the gambling industry really say about our society?

People gamble for different reasons. Some want to gain a lot of money with little effort. Others, especially problem gamblers, seek thrill and excitement through games of chance, and feel a "high" described as similar to a heroin-induced rush when prolonged tension, awaiting a game's outcome, is released. Many gamblers value this adrenaline-induced state of excitement more than the money they may win. Others claim that gambling is simply a way to pass time-just another form of entertainment-and that they spend no more time and money on gambling than they would devote to some other form of entertainment if they did not gamble.

Can we judge the morality of gambling in its many guises? We can, by using a source our Creator has given us as His "instruction manual" and revelation to humanity. The Holy Bible gives several principles to help us understand the morality of gambling. Notice that the last of the Ten Commandments prohibits covetousness (Exodus 20:17). We are covetous if we try to acquire what belongs to another without paying a fair price. If everyone obeyed the Tenth Commandment, gambling could not remain a viable industry, as one of its major appeals would vanish.

Is it wrong to seek the mind-numbing thrill and pleasure that some find through gambling? The Bible nowhere condemns pleasure and recreation, but it does warn against skewed priorities. In several of his writings the Apostle Paul stresses the importance of working, being productive, taking care of family and giving to those in need (cf. Ephesians 4:28; 1 Timothy 5:8; 2 Thessalonians 3:8-11). God put mankind on earth to develop godly character. Standing over slot machines or roulette tables, squandering time and money, a Christian is certainly not helping Jesus Christ live His life in us through such behavior (cf. Galatians 2:20). That is not how Christ spent His time when He walked the earth 2,000 years ago-and it is not the way He would spend it now!

Paul admonished Titus: "For at one time we ourselves in our folly and obstinacy were all astray. We were slaves to passions and pleasures of every kind. Our days were passed in malice and envy… Those who have come to believe in God should see that they engage in honourable occupations, which are not only honourable in themselves, but also useful to their fellow-men" (Titus 3:3, 8, NEB). Gambling is clearly neither honorable nor useful.

Jesus Christ told His followers to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (cf. Matthew 6:33). Whenever any form of pleasure or entertainment becomes such a drain on our time and resources that it interferes with this commitment, our priorities have become distorted and are in serious need of correction.

The legalized gambling industry cannot be the economic savior touted by its supporters. It can only be a "black hole" sucking both financial and human capital from far more worthwhile and productive pursuits. Politicians, wanting to fund programs for which constituents are otherwise unable or unwilling to pay, may think they have found, in gambling, the "goose that lays the golden egg." Yet in turning to gambling, they are "tossing the dice" and wagering the economic and social well-being of their communities. Eventually, the bitter fruits of gambling will show that it is not the glamorous pursuit or financial salvation it is portrayed to be. The moral issue is clear. Gambling is a goose that lays rotten eggs!

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