Government's Gamble

WITH California issuing IOUs to cover its obligations and dozens of other states stuck on fiscal shoals, it's hardly surprising that state governments are more enthralled than ever with gambling. At latest count, 33 states operate some form of legalized gambling. Lotteries are the preferred vehicle, but an increasing number - South Dakota, Iowa, Colorado, and now Louisiana - are joining Nevada and New Jersey with casino gambling.

It's a lot easier than raising taxes. Revenue-starved states see the promise of hundreds of millions of dollars for schools, roads, and other services, and they can't resist. They, like the compulsive gambler, are hooked.

Cities are eyeing the gaming option, too. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley would like to open a new casino to brighten his town's economic outlook.

And what about the downside - the possible increase in problem gamblers and stress on families, the potential growth of related criminal activities, and the question of whether states should be encouraging citizens to rely on "fortune"?

Mayor Daley, voicing a rationale doubtless shared by other officials, has observed that "the moral question is over with" when one can simply go into his neighborhood grocery and buy a ticket.

In other words, if everyone's doing it, it can't be wrong.

The "wrong" aspects of state-run gambling, unlike the revenue flows, aren't easily quantified. The few researchers in the field haven't yet compiled statistical studies on the relation, over time, between legalized gambling and the social problems that may spring from it.

Studies have been done on the percentages of various state populations that are likely to be problem gamblers. Those figures hover around 1.5 percent in East Coast states that have long had legalized gambling - about 90,000 people in New York, for instance.

Other scholars have concluded that state-run games get most of their revenue from middle- and lower-income groups, people who can't afford the luxury of taking a chance but who can't resist the excitement either.

Should Americans be concerned? What's the difference whether citizens are parted from their money "voluntarily," on the remote chance they'll get a jackpot in return, or through taxes? Of course it's not an either/or proposition. Gambling won't take the place of taxes.

Americans are always clamoring for more responsible behavior from their political leaders. So perhaps the central question is this: Is a government acting responsibly when it's encouraging its citizens to act irresponsibly?

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