Gambling in America
by Stacy Mattingly
Over the last fifteen years, the gambling industry's image has
gone from sleazy to slick. Once a pastime that had us conjuring up
visions of cigar-toting, gold-chain - wearing, pot-bellied
mobsters, gambling is now something we can associate with trim,
tanned, Wall Street family men. Even GOP presidential nominee Bob
Dole seems convinced that today's legal gambling operations are
squeaky clean - so much so, in fact, that, according to the Wall
Street Journal, he accepted $477,450 in campaign contributions
from gambling interests in Las Vegas last summer.
If nothing else, gambling companies certainly look like other
companies: they are publicly traded (Harvard University and U.S.
Steel are among the institutions that hold 80 percent of available
gambling shares); they are avowedly divested of all connections to
organized crime; and they hire high-profile politicians and
attorneys general to be lobbyists. As evidence that the gambling
industry has become legitimate in the public eye, proponents point
to Fortune magazine, which put Mirage Resorts Inc. on its 1996
list of the ten most admired companies in America.
This is fitting because Steve Wynn, Mirage's chairman, is the man
who instigated the gambling industry's makeover. During the
eighties, Frank Sinatra and Dolly Parton went on TV with Wynn - an
athletics buff who himself is reported to have had a face-lift and
liposuction - to let the American people know that gambling is
really just entertainment. It's not gambling, aver the cadres of
Armani-bedecked casino executives - it's "gaming," and it's as
American as baseball, apple pie, and Mama.
One thing's for certain: Americans seem to clamor for seats at the
blackjack table a lot more readily than they do for seats in the
ballpark. Now more people gamble at casinos, or "family
entertainment centers," than attend professional baseball games
each year. With a foothold in twenty-three states, casinos grossed
more revenue in 1995 than all sporting events, movies, plays, and
concerts combined; $1.4 billion in taxes went to state and local
Gambling interests chalk this up to their "product" - a host of
garish architectural feats equipped with every feature and amenity
imaginable. (Mirage Resort's Treasure Island, for instance,
resembles an eighteenth-century pirate village and hosts a
skirmish between a full-scale British man-of-war and a pirate ship
every ninety minutes.) Whether or not gambling is part of our
cultural heritage, the country certainly seems to have bought it.
And for all of their flights of fancy, "family entertainment
centers" could be on their way to becoming banal in America.
The opposition, of course, has a few things to say about this.
According to Tom Grey, the executive director of the National
Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, the country should not
expect to see a casino on every street corner any time soon -
thanks primarily to the dedication of his troops. A former Vietnam
infantryman and a Methodist minister, Grey claims that his mostly
volunteer forces (he calls them "Gideon's army") have won a
decisive political victory over the lavishly funded gambling
industry. Since 1994 opponents have won twenty-two of twenty-four
statewide referendums and legislative contests in the battle to
legalize gambling; last year, despite extravagant marketing
campaigns launched by casino interests (they spent $16.5 million
in Florida), every state that voted on the issue voted "no." In
April, Louisiana Governor Mike Foster, an outspoken opponent of
gambling in a state where video poker "truck stops" are a dime-a-
dozen, pushed a bill through the legislature that allows
communities to vote existing gambling out of local areas. This
will be the first time a legislature has given citizens the
opportunity to reverse legalized gambling since around the turn of
The clincher in what Grey calls "the fight for the heart and soul
of America" is a bill passed by the House in March that
establishes a commission to investigate the social and economic
impact of gambling so that states, when faced with the issue, will
be able to make informed decisions. The Senate has yet to vote on
the bill, but if what happened in the House is any indication
(only six representatives spoke out against the bill), it should
pass easily. The antigambling forces are confident that once an
objective study is compiled, the ugly truth about the gambling
industry, which lobbied hard to kill the bill, will become common
Here's the truth, say opponents: the gambling industry may have a
new face and a new name, but it doesn't have a new game. For
gambling interests, the game has always been about people losing
their money, and, as new research conducted by economists at the
University of Illinois indicates, these interests bank on some
people losing a lot more than a 20-spot here and there between
amusement park rides. While it is true that the vast majority of
casino "customers" are casual gamblers (they do it for fun and in
moderation), a recent study called "Development or Dreamfield
Delusions?" shows that problem gamblers (people who are mentally
and emotionally troubled) provide an outrageously disproportionate
amount of casino revenues.
According to the numbers, between 30 and 50 percent of the money
collected by casinos every year comes from about 4 percent of the
population. In other words, explains the study's coauthor, Earl
Grinols, what keeps the gambling industry going - indeed, what
keeps it growing - are the husbands who lay the deeds to their
homes on the craps tables and the widows who play their insurance
money away in the slot machines. This, opponents argue, makes the
gambling industry a wolf among sheep. It may market itself as just
another form of entertainment, but the fact remains, says Grinols,
that "if problem and pathological gamblers were out of the
picture, it would be a major shock to casino operations." Such a
state of affairs, he concludes, "casts doubt" on whether the
gambling industry can be trusted to earnestly seek or provide help
for its troubled patrons.
Furthermore, the argument goes, it follows that state and local
governments counting on tax money from this ill-gotten revenue are
necessarily at odds with the very people whose well-being they are
supposed to protect. Which, Grey is quick to point out, amounts to
atrocious public policy. And if this weren't bad enough, argues
Robert Goodman, author of The Luck Business, in most cases problem
gamblers are actually costing communities more money in other
economic sectors than they are contributing to communities on the
casino end. These gamblers spend money in casinos that should be
going to pay bills or buy groceries for their families; they write
bad checks; they may steal or embezzle money to pay off gambling
debts or to fuel their habit. Plus, it costs money to prosecute
and correct those gamblers who do break the law. All of these
actions, Goodman explains, add up to financial loss for somebody
Conservative estimates, according to Goodman's research, have
problem gamblers costing their communities around $13,000 each per
year. Put these figures up against the fact that the number of
problem gamblers reportedly increases when casinos set up shop and
you have an economic cataclysm on your hands. (In Iowa, according
to a state-funded study, the percentage of problem gamblers rose
from 1.7 percent of the population before casinos arrived to 5.4
percent four years later.) Considered another way, Grinols points
out, for every dollar of tax revenue a community gains from
casinos, it loses between one and three dollars elsewhere. "At
this rate," he ventures, "it is possible that you could tax 100
percent of casino revenues and still not pay off the costs."
Then there is the slew of social costs to consider. Communities
all over the nation cite soaring crime rates as the result of
land-based or riverboat casino operations; the number of gambling-
related suicides is on the rise; Gamblers Anonymous chapters are
proliferating rapidly; and divorce lawyers across the country
claim that families are breaking up because of gambling addiction.
Not to mention the long-term philosophical ramifications at stake
- opponents worry about the "something-for-nothing" mentality that
gambling interests (and now governments) necessarily cultivate.
"All in all," says Grey, "if I had five minutes on national
television, I'd put it like this: the gambling industry may
glitter, but it isn't gold. The final word is, You're getting
The political impact of Grey's mainly grassroots efforts hasn't
been lost on the gambling industry. Still, it was a full three
years after Grey and his group put the wheels of their campaign in
motion before the industry decided to set up a lobbying office in
Washington, D.C. The American Gaming Association was formed in
1995; Frank Fahrenkopf, the former chairman of the Republican
Party, took charge as president and CEO. Fahrenkopf defines the
AGA's mission in terms of his opponents: "For the last two or
three years, the critics have put out information and research on
gambling only to meet with no industry response - well, we're here
For one, says Fahrenkopf, a former gaming attorney from Nevada,
the social ills that gambling opponents connect to casinos are not
necessarily caused by casinos - he claims there is no proof of a
causal relationship. Furthermore, he argues, the economic
conclusions touted by Grinols and the others amount to smoke and
mirrors. "The opposition is a bunch of moralists; they oppose
gaming for moral reasons. When they saw that they couldn't get
anywhere with moralizing in America - because Americans don't like
to have people telling them what to believe - they came up with a
statistical house of cards." As evidence, Fahrenkopf points to a
paper written by economist Christian Marfels of Dalhousie
University in Nova Scotia. Marfels, who has never accepted money
from gambling interests for his critiques but who looks to do some
broader projects for the industry, alleges that Grinols and his
partner at the University of Illinois did some funny things with
numbers to come up with their conclusions about casino gambling.
As Marfels has it, Grinols, in his zeal to demonstrate what a
casino-ridden America might look like, combined statistical apples
and oranges. "To do a cost-benefit analysis," Marfels explains,
"you can't combine rates determined for certain regions and
project them onto other regions, or take expenditure rates figured
for 1980 and inflate them so they translate for 1990. It's
preposterous. You have to use real numbers." That being said, he
contends, Grinols's finding that problem gamblers contribute
nearly half of all casino revenues is "bizarre and not
substantiated by fact." Which means there is no evidence to prove
that the gambling industry has a stake in wanting addiction to
persist among its customers. In short, says Marfels, "I would not
accept this study as a termpaper from a student."
Grinols, who had never heard of Marfels until the critique came
out and who has never received money from gambling opponents for
his work, refutes the German economist's efforts to debunk his
study. He insists that he did not do anything unorthodox with the
numbers - "combining and recalibrating numbers is what economists
do" - and argues that the figures available to him were plenty
adequate for his purposes: "Everyone agrees that we would like to
have more and better research. But to say that we don't have
sufficient research now to tell us the nature of the problem we're
facing is simply not being sensible." As to his conclusion that
problem gamblers provide casinos with up to half of their
revenues, Grinols, who has conducted research in this area for
five years, says he stands by his results. ("I would be delighted
for the industry to come forward with its numbers.") Based on his
findings, he argues, it is only "common sense" to question the
extent to which casinos can be trusted to treat problem gamblers:
"The industry would be agreeing to do what is not in its own
interests - that is, to reduce its revenues by one half if
treatment efforts were successful."
Marfels, who may in the future attempt his own cost-benefit
analysis, calls Grinols's skepticism "a harsh accusation,
considering that casinos already bend over backwards to give money
to treatment efforts." In fact, the AGA opened a National Center
for Responsible Gaming in February in order to research gambling
addiction and develop prevention, intervention, and treatment
strategies. Across the nation, casinos are putting money into
similar efforts locally. Frank Campbell, the director of a Baton
Rouge crisis center that serves as "one of the hubs on the wheel
of Gamblers Anonymous" in Louisiana, points out that in the midst
of the political hem and haw - "where everyone focuses on this or
that gambling issue rather than on the people who are drowning" -
it is the casinos that are advertising the crisis center's hot
Opponents argue that while the gambling industry is doing some
good things, its efforts are a drop in the bucket when compared to
what gambling operations are costing society in dollars and in
human tragedy. But to Marfels - as to Fahrenkopf - Grinols's
"accusation" is evidence of what he and his allies are really up
to: "They think gambling is a sin."
Catholic reactions to all of this have been mixed. Fahrenkopf,
himself a Catholic and a member of the Knights of Malta, is quick
to point out that some dioceses are probably faring quite well
financially due to the generosity of casinos. But this, he argues,
should not alarm anyone. As Fahrenkopf sees it, gambling and
Catholicism are not at odds: "Look at history. Catholics have
always been into bingo parlors."
Catholic leadership makes a distinction between bingo, which is
used to raise money for charitable purposes, and casinos, which
incur social problems - whatever the extent of those problems may
be. Still, the Church's position on gambling is one of caution
rather than condemnation. According to the Catechism, "Games of
chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary
to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive
someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of
With the rampant spread of state-sponsored gambling - not just in
this country, but worldwide - many, including the Holy Father's
in-house theologian, believe that the Vatican should give the
phenomenon a closer look. In April, the Catholic News Service
reported "a growing sense of uneasiness" among Vatican insiders
about the proliferation of legalized gambling - particularly as a
"substitute for local taxation." Church officials have not
committed to a comprehensive examination of the issue but are
currently keeping track of statements made against gambling by
bishops in the United States, Canada, and Australia.
In accordance with the Catechism's emphasis on moderation,
Catholic leadership in the US has voiced concern about the spread
of casino gambling in terms of the harm it brings to those who
become addicted. And the degree to which priests and bishops
tolerate the industry varies.
The gulf-coast diocese of Biloxi, Mississippi - one of the largest
gambling markets in a state that ranks second only to Nevada in
casino square footage - is, according to a spokesperson, "living
in harmony" with area gambling interests. John E. Connelly, the
chairman of President Riverboat Casinos, Inc., and a Catholic,
bequested $1 million to the Biloxi diocese last year. Casinos have
provided grants and shuttle buses to diocesan schools; they give
financial support to the diocese's youth ministry; and they paid
the note on a Catholic high school's football bus and had it air-
Father Al Camp of St. Mary's parish in the historic river town of
Natchez, Mississippi, on the other hand, says that the "one little
riverboat" there is doing nothing for the local Catholic
community. Officials with Lady Luck Gaming Corporation have stated
that the company would gladly donate money to Catholic causes if
approached. But Father Camp insists he wouldn't have anything to
do with it. "If I had to make a statement," he ventures, "I'd say
the casino is a cruel hoax. You can't get something for nothing,
but you can be sure there will be nothing to stop you from losing
everything. It's the philosophical and theological equivalent of
putting a bandit on the river."
Whatever the situation may be concerning casinos and charitable
giving, says Bishop William Houck of the Jackson diocese, the two
bishops in Mississippi have advised the clergy to be "constantly
alert and to challenge the people with a balanced and responsible
outlook on gambling." Meanwhile, the bishops in the heavily
Catholic state of Louisiana have taken a more public stance. In
1986, when casinos were first being considered by lawmakers, the
bishops of Louisiana made a collective statement against
legalization, asserting their belief that casinos would "undermine
. . . the spirit of industriousness of our people" and have "a
particularly detrimental effect on family life." In 1992, after
lawmakers had ensured casinos a place in the economy, the bishops
reissued their statement.
Still, many Catholics in Louisiana are employed by casinos, and
many Cathoics patronize them. Laura Deavers, the editor of he
Catholic Commentator in Baton Rouge, says her parish sends their
seniors to casinos in the church bus. This is not as often the
case with Protestant congregations, who believe gambling to be
contrary to the spirit of Scripture - and, therefore, a sin. Of
course, there are gambling proponents who speculate that the very
Protestants touting the Bible as the final word on casinos are
shooting dice on the local riverboats like everybody else. The
implication here is obvious - opponents of gambling are not only
moralists, they're hypocrites.
Personal morality, it turns out, is exactly what Grey is trying to
steer his troops away from. Historically, Protestants - and many
antigambling activists are associated with Protestant
organizations - have tended to see things in private moral terms,
he explains. "What I'm trying to do is get people to look at this
debate in terms of the common good, which makes it a fight with
Catholic overtones more than anything else. In fact, we could
really use some more Catholics among the ranks."
Grey needs more than just Catholics to join his forces - he needs
more forces, period. Antigambling activists won the first round of
the fight with Gideon's army, "but for the next round," says Grey,
"we're going to need a serious army." Just what the next round may
look like is hard to say. If the Senate approves the gambling
commission, there's no telling what sort of information might turn
up or where that information might lead. Grey hopes that it will
lead to more stringent regulation and, ultimately, to containment
of the casino industry. Fahrenkopf himself says that he does not
expect to see a lot of expansion in the next couple of years.
Whatever the future may hold, says Grey, some things are certain:
"The nation is up for grabs and the emperor has no clothes." If
the spread of legalized gambling, as opponents believe, is just
one among many issues that expose the nation's much-talked-about
social decrepitude, then, explains Grey, "I shouldn't have to be
lighting fires under Christians - of all people - to get them out
there into the fray. This is about much more than religious
extremism.' As Americans we're responsible for getting our country
on track, if not for ourselves, then for our children and
Stacey Mattiingly is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia
U.S. Casinos by State
Arizona: Sixteen Indian casinos.
California: Seventeen Indian casinos.
Colorado: Dozens of small commercial casinos in three resort
towns and two Indian casinos.
Connecticut: One Indian casino.
Illinois: Ten riverboat casinos, with almost all Las Vegas games.
Indiana: One riverboat casino launched and eleven more
Iowa: Six riverboats and three Indian casinos.
Louisiana: Seven riverboat casinos and three Indian casinos.
Michigan: Eight Indian casinos.
Minnesota: Sixteen Indian casinos.
Mississippi: Ten riverboat casinos and one Indian casino.
Missouri: Five riverboat casinos.
Montana: Four Indian casinos.
Nevada: Hundreds of commercial casinos and one Indian casino.
New Jersey:Twelve commercial casinos.
New Mexico: Eight Indian casinos.
New York: Two Indian casinos.
North Carolina: One Indian casino.
North Dakota: Six Indian casinos.
Oregon: Three Indian casinos.
South Dakota: Dozens of casinos in Deadwood and seven Indian
Washington: Six Indian casinos.
Wisconsin: Sixteen Indian casinos.
*Florida: Not usually listed as a casino state, Florida has four
Indian establishments with high-stakes bingo, video pull-tabs and
This information (current as of 01/15/96) was provided by the
National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. For further
information, they may be reached at 800-664-2680.
© 1995-1996 Crisis Magazine
This article was taken from the June 1996 issue of "Crisis"
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