The Gambling Boom: A Success Story -- For Some

Governments Tap a "Tax" Eagerly Paid

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, SEPT. 13, 2009 (Zenit.org).- In recent decades, legalized gambling has spread like wildfire in the United States, while at the same time other historical vices continue to face strong opposition. Gambling's success has received little academic attention, but a recent book seeks to correct that.

Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College, and Erik C. Owens edited the recently published book, "Gambling: Mapping the American Moral Landscape," (Baylor University Press).

As they note in the book's introduction the amount of money involved in the industry is considerable. In 2005 an estimated $84.65 billion was wagered, and in 2006 around one in four Americans visited a casino -- a radical change from not too many years ago when Nevada was the only place with legalized gambling, the editors observed. In fact, gambling is now legal in one form or another in 48 states, plus the District of Columbia.

Amid campaigns to stop smoking and reduce alcohol consumption, and little tolerance for sexual misconduct by public figures, there is relatively little opposition to gambling, they note. Wolfe deals with this curious phenomenon in his chapter of the book, titled "The Culture War Issue That Never Was."

A century ago there was strong opposition to gambling by churches, and evangelical leaders were fierce in their criticism of what they denounced as a vice. Wolfe explained that this religious opposition to gambling was a byproduct of the Puritan strain in American culture.

This Puritanism let to the campaign against alcohol that resulted in the Prohibition era. By contrast, Wolfe observed that religious-led opposition to gambling was never elevated to a nationally-coordinated campaign. In addition, a number of political activists associated with Christian groups have endorsed gambling and lobbied in favor of it.

Wolfe also argued that in general Protestant leaders are political pragmatists and are unwilling to criticize practices popular among their members.

No common cause

He also pointed out that while Christians and some feminists have made common cause against pornography, no such alliance has been formed regarding gambling. This is in spite of the fact that some feminists are critical of gambling, given the impact on mothers and families when the husband gambles a large portion of the family income.

In his contribution, John Dombrink, a professor in the department of criminology, law and society at the University of California, commented that many states have chosen to resolve fiscal problems through gambling revenue. This was the argument used by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in 2007 when he announced a plan to allow more casinos.

This can lead to a conflict of interests, Dombrink added. We can expect gambling operators to want to maximize profit, but what does this lead to when it is the same state government that both regulates gambling and profits from it?

Dombrink also explained that, if opposition to gambling by social conservatives has been muted, so called "progressives" have also shied away from attacking the spread of legal gambling.


The lack of opposition has led to a cosy relationship between gambling operators and government, observed R. Shep Melnick. A professor of American politics at Boston College, Melnick noted that gambling companies have spent millions in lobbying politicians and that, in some cases, have even helped draft the legislation governing the industry.

He cited one study that put at more than $100 million the amount the gambling industry spent on lobbying and campaign contributions in the period 1994-96.

The state governments, in turn, have a vested interest in the success of gambling. State lotteries spend around half a billion dollars annually in advertising, according to Melnick. Thus, as they have cracked down on tobacco advertising they have stepped up efforts to spread gambling. The Federal Trade Commission has even gone so far as to exempt state lotteries from truth-in-advertising rules, Melnick added.

"Many of the ordinary rules of the game are suspended in lottery politics," he commented.

At the same time he explained that the general public shares in the blame. People call for more government services, but resist any attempt to increase taxes. Lotteries and casinos offer governments the solution to these conflicting demands.

"A tax that people line up to pay, a tax that falls on poor people who tend not to vote anyway -- how many hard-pressed politicians could resist that?" he observed.

The question of the impact on the poor was detailed by Melnick. Those earning less than $10,000 a year spend an average of $600 on lottery tickets, while those earning more than $50,000 spend less than $250.

High school dropouts spend four times as much as college graduates on lottery tickets and blacks spend five times as much as whites.

It's questionable, Melnick argued, that the revenues gained through gambling trickle down far enough to compensate for the effects of what is, in effect, a regressive tax on the poor.

Harm caused

John P. Hoffmann, a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University, examined the harm caused by gambling. Gambling has generally been placed in the category of victimless crimes, but he argued this terminology is not correct.

Problems such as gambling have substantial negative effects on marital relations and family functioning. Many people gamble with no apparent problems, Hoffmann admitted, but studies point to about 9% of gamblers having some risks, with another 1.5% classified as problem gamblers, and 0.9% as pathological gamblers.

The percentages might seem low, but they translate into substantial numbers -- millions of people, in fact -- when you consider the total population of the United States, he commented.

When it comes to family life Hoffmann observed that pathological gambling is associated with mental health problems and divorce. When gambling reaches problem levels, children are also often acutely affected. Not only does it influence the time parents spend at home, but children also suffer from a sense of diminished personal attachment to their parents and a loss of trust in them.

Moral dimension

In itself, gambling is not immoral according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, and the use of lotteries or bingo nights has been a common feature in fundraising at the parish and local levels of the Church.

As No. 2413 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, however, games of chance "become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and the needs of others."

"The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement," it also warns.

How then can we resist this enslavement and avoid the evils caused by excessive gambling? Perhaps the answer lies in a rediscovery of a life oriented by virtue.

"Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith," says the Catechism in No. 1804.

The cardinal virtue of temperance seems apt when discussing gambling. Temperance, explains No. 1809 of the Catechism, "is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods." A moderation and balance often sorely lacking in today's culture, and not only when it comes to gambling.