In a recent interview about gambling on the CBS News program 60 Minutes, Howard Shaffer, director of the Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addiction, said he did not believe gambling – in this case, gambling through slot machines – was addictive. Asked why he held that view by correspondent Leslie Stahl, Shaffer replied, with a broad grin: “Because not everybody who uses crack cocaine becomes an addict.”
This explains, of course, why crack cocaine and slot machines are both perfectly legal in Pennsylvania.
For some silly reason, cocaine is still against the law to make, transport, sell, or use. It’s hard to imagine why. After all, only some of the people who use it become addicted and see their lives crumble around them, ruining themselves financially and destroying their families.
I must be missing something.
We hear a lot about how 38 states so far have legalized casinos of one kind or another, and how that has been such an enormous help to those states struggling to keep their snouts above a tide of budget deficits.
Hey, I get that. There’s an old Ray Charles song that says “I am no thief, but a man can go wrong, when he’s busted,” and catalogues the temptations that face somebody whose back is against the wall.
On the surface, it sounds harmless enough. Everybody gambles, or anyway a lot of people do. Gambling has been around forever. We probably bet on which coconut was going to fall first when we still lived in the trees and had not yet developed opposable thumbs to shoot craps with.
What’s the big deal, you ask? We already have the lottery, and look what that does for us, you say?
OK, fair enough. A report in the Pennsylvania Independent last March said that the advent of slots gambling had not hurt the state’s lottery program, which reported just under $1 billion – with a “B” – revenues in 2009.
“The play of slot machines at the 10 operating casinos produced $174,772,637 in gross revenue in December 2010 compared to $155,048,230 in December 2009. Tax collections by the Commonwealth on that amount last month was $95,665,380, a per-day average of $3.08 million in tax revenue,” the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board reported in a recent statement.
OK, before we start throwing rose petals around in the parking lots of the state’s 10 casinos, let’s stop and think about where that money is coming from.
Here’s a hint: It’s not coming from the idle rich.
Studies in assorted states and on a national level have shown that a high proportion of lottery tickets are bought by people who are in the lowest income brackets. One of my own relatives, now deceased, sold lottery tickets in western Pa. for many years, and said most of her customers were living on welfare, Social Security, or scant pensions. Some spent their entire monthly stipend on the dream of striking it rich with the help of Gus the Second Most Famous Groundhog in Pennsylvania.
It is actually possible to hear people say things like “well, (fill in the blank, table games, lottery, slots, lottery) is better than having them raise taxes.” I think people who say that actually believe that the lottery is different than a tax. In fact, it is a tax, and a regressive one at that. And it falls most heavily on those least able to afford it.
So, if the slots haven’t hurt the sales of lottery tickets, that means that the people who are buying lottery tickets are also now playing slots machines, looking for that whole pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by thing.
Again, according to The Pennsylvania Independent: “A recent survey conducted by the Lehigh Valley Research Consortium found 48 percent of people living below the poverty line intend to gamble at the new Sands Casino in Bethlehem. That compares to only 29 percent of people making between $20,000 and $60,000 and 20 percent of people making more than $100,000.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I sometimes buy lottery tickets. Sometimes when I gas up the car I go in and put a dollar down for one or the other of the games. I feel silly when I do. I know the odds of winning are stupefying. But there’s that little whisper “it could happen.”
Indeed, it could. But the overwhelming possibility is that nothing will happen, and I will have thrown away my hard-earned buck.
But see, I’m not converting my whole paycheck into lottery tickets and scratch pads and whatever else is out there in Lottoworld while a landlord is filling out eviction notices and the repo man is sharking around looking for my car. See, if I was that guy, and there are a lot of those guys – and gals – out there, that would mean that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was out paving its roads or paying for the Farm Show or funding some program somewhere on the back of my addiction and my financial ruin.
Doesn’t that feel wrong to you? Would it feel wrong if somebody suggested legalizing the sale of crack, taxing it, and using those taxes to prop up the top-heavy state budget? As the expression goes, “I’m just sayin’.”
(What have Pennsylvania casinos done for tax revenue lately, click on Rock The Capital to see.)
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