Gambling's Illusiveness

THE nation's $300 billion gambling industry is shifting its message. Gambling is not just about winning; it is also about family entertainment, civic improvements, and a region's economic well-being.

The promise to individuals: It could happen! Or, if you don't win, you will at least be amused.

The promise to beleaguered state and city officials: a quick and easy way to reduce chronic state budget deficits and appease anti-tax voters.

The promise to blighted areas left behind by economic growth: new visitors, new jobs, new tax revenues, new wealth.

The traditional opponents of gambling, church and state, have largely stepped aside in the moral debate over this issue. Many churches adopted bingo or ``Las Vegas nights'' as a way of raising revenue, opening the door to arguments for allowing legalized gambling on Indian reservations. State governments find themselves more and more dependent on gambling revenues.

* All states but Hawaii and Utah allow some form of legalized gambling. The proceeds are usually targeted for a politically popular cause: downtown improvements, education, programs for the elderly and the disabled.

* Since New Hampshire established the first state lottery in 1964, 37 states have followed suit. Lotteries provided $11.45 billion in tax revenues in 1992.

* Since Iowa started the first riverboat gambling operation in 1991, six states have launched some 40 boats. Riverboat gambling is soon expected to be approved in at least eight other states.

* Connecticut, which granted a monopoly on slot-machines to the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, now receives $113 million a year in revenues, making the Foxwoods casino the state's single largest taxpayer.

Many Americans are buying the argument, directing more of their time and family resources to picking numbers, scraping tickets, and feeding slot machines. In 1938, 47 percent of those surveyed in a Gallup poll said that government lotteries ``would produce an unwholesome gambling spirit'' in the country. By 1993, only about one-third thought that gambling is immoral. Fifty-four percent of American adults have purchased lottery tickets, according to a 1992 survey; nearly 25 percent say they have formed a weekly lottery habit.

Aggressive images reinforce the notion of gambling as crowned with victory. Gambling casinos amplify the sounds of winning. Before the big-stakes tables, nickle, quarter, dollar slot machines dole out the fruits of victory one coin at a time into a metal cup. There is no sound from losing.

State lotteries send the same message: The pots get larger, faces of winners beam out from television and newspapers. Massachusetts launched its state lottery with a campaign targeted at poorer neighborhoods of the city: ``If you won, think what you could say to your boss.''

Is this winning?

Try another question, raised consistently in this Monitor series: What is the impact on children? Does gambling treat children as precious?

What does gambling have to do with children? Note the number of children's arcades and fast food restaurants that are building the gambling habit into playtime and mealtime activities. Note the tendency in new casinos to build around themes attractive to children: castles, pirate ships, wild animals, amusements. A new generation of interactive video machines, designed to be fast and arousing, targets young audiences.

Workers at the Jellinek addiction center in the Netherlands describe the difficulties of helping young men under 25 overcome addiction to the ``buzz'' from the whirling reels, flashing lights, and noise of slot machines. In 1986, when the Dutch legalized the playing of cash-paying machines, 400 people visited the center for help with gambling addiction. By 1992, that number had risen to 6,000.

Family income in the United States has not grown since 1971, and yet gambling expenditures are taking a deeper bite out of family budgets. Marketing outlets for gambling are often concentrated in poorer neighborhoods.

Are public officials figuring into their budget calculations the daily drain on family time, resources, and hope this habit involves?

Yes, hope. One of the most precious legacies we can give children as parents or as a civic culture is to articulate the reason for the hope that is in us. Yet the message from gambling is that hope rests with chance or luck, rather than with individual moral and spiritual growth. It is the buzz, glitz, thrill, and illusive promise of heroic reward without heroic endeavor.

As public officials and voters take a closer look at gambling proposals in their communities, they also should take a hard look at the the faces that don't make it into high-gloss industry promotions: troubled faces as people scratch tickets in convenience stores or watch a pile of chips in front of a gambling spouse disappear.

Budget deficits may fall, but at what price? And on whose shoulders?

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