Democrats, GOP collude to lure people into gambling
It seems like America’s political parties have never been more polarized. But when it comes to state-regulated gambling, they’re often playing the same hand. Unfortunately, it's a losing one.
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One hundred years ago, ironically, America’s political parties also stood united – against gambling. In the 1890s, at the dawn of the Progressive Era, they worked together to ban the interstate distribution of lottery tickets. They also stepped up municipal enforcement of prohibition on gambling, which the muckraking police reporter Jacob Riis called “selfishness in its coldest form.”Skip to next paragraph
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Up until the 1930s, gambling remained tightly controlled. With the advent of the Great Depression, however, cash-starved states started to legalize racetrack betting. And in 1931, Nevada became the first one to permit casinos.
But the floodgates really opened the 1960s, when a Democratic governor in New Hampshire signed into law the first modern state lottery – approved by a Republican-led legislature. Not surprisingly, New Hampshire is also one of the only states that still lacks an individual state income tax (other than on interest and dividends) or general sales tax. Who needs that, when you have gambling?
Over the past three decades, as politicians on both sides of the aisle pledged to limit the size of government, per capita spending on education, health, and other services has skyrocketed. But we did scale back taxes, which made us rely even more on gambling to make up the difference.
It can’t. Despite what you might have heard about lottery profits, they only amount to about two percent of the average state’s budget. Nor have casinos in many cases fully generated the revenues and other economic benefits for states and municipalities that advocates predicted.
But they have created new pots of money for the super-rich, who can use it to game the entire system. Despite the drubbing he took in Florida, Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign has been kept afloat by $10 million in contributions to the pro-Gingrich super PAC “Winning Our Future” from the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam.
To his credit, Mr. Gingrich recently warned that gambling might lure the poor into a “false hope.” But he deflected questions about a new proposal to expand gambling in Florida, where Mr. Adelson wants to build a new casino. No matter what their party, our politicians have become hooked on the false hope of gambling. Too bad it’s a sucker’s bet for the rest of us.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).
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