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One more issue in stadium debate: human toll of gambling

Child neglect. Suicide. The poor getting poorer. 

Two religious groups at both ends of the political spectrum are trying to raise these social concerns in the fierce debate over a new Vikings stadium. 

Plans to expand legalized gambling  to help finance a new stadium have prompted an unlikely alliance of the progressive Joint Religious Legislative Council (JRLC) and the conservative Minnesota Family Council to oppose gambling proposals. Representatives from the groups argue that gambling takes a huge human toll, especially on the poor, and that eventually society will have to pick up the check.

Brian Rusche, JRLC executive director, testified recently before two state Senate committees, telling lawmakers that significant social costs come with gambling, including addiction, family violence, divorce as well as police and court expenses. He told me later that gambling “utterly preys on desperation.”

Brian Rusche
Brian Rusche

Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council and who also testified at the Capitol hearing, agrees. “There’s a spill-over effect. It breaks up families, causes crime and divorce,” he said. 

Prichard points out that gambling disproportionately hurts the poor. “Generally, it is understood people who gamble the most are the lower economic classes, so it’s a regressive tax as well,”  Prichard said. 

The state should be protecting its citizens, rather than encouraging them to do something not in their best interest, Prichard adds. 

Gambling survey
A 2010 survey by the Minnesota State Lottery shows 64 percent of those earning less than $15,000 a year gambled and 67 percent of those in the $15,000 to $25,000 household income range did so as well,  according to Don Feeney, the lottery’s director of research and planning. Of those making more than $25,000, 82 percent had gambled at least once in that year. 

But Feeney adds a caution. Beyond household income, other poverty indicators were not measured in the survey. So, gamblers surveyed indicating low income could be very poor or be college students supported by family members, for example.

The biggest concentration of gamblers falls in the $75,000 to $100,000 income range, Feeney reports.

Interesting to note, the lottery’s survey defines gambling broadly to include not only lottery tickets, pull-tabs, racing, casino betting and playing cards for money, but also friendly wagers, say on a golf course.

Gambling participation since the Great Recession is mixed. For the fourth consecutive fiscal year, Minnesota State Lottery ticket sales set a record, coming in at $504.4 million, a 1.1 percent increase over last year, but gambling overall across the state is down, according to Feeney. Charitable pull-tab gambling is down about 30 percent from its peak five or six years ago — perhaps because the clientele is aging out of the past time – and gambling on racing is down as well, he said. Anecdotally, casino gambling is down, too.

Across the country, some lottery ticket sales have increased in some states, while others have decreased. 

Two million, or about 1 percent, of U.S. adults can be defined as pathological gamblers, with another 4 million to 6 million considered “problem gamblers,” according to the National Council on Problem Gambling, of which Feeney is president.

Only Hawaii and Utah do not allow some form of legalized gambling.

For thousands of years, Feeney stresses, gambling has been controversial in faith communities.

Problem gamblers
Rusche, who heads the JRLC, a coalition of Catholic, Islamic, Jewish and Protestant religious organizations, elaborated in his group’s blog “Justice We Pursue:”

“[E]scalation of gambling comes with demonstrable social costs: addiction, family violence, divorce, embezzlement, theft, suicide, child neglect, police and court costs, lost productivity, just to give them the short list. The whole business model of a casino rests on 48 percent of revenues coming from customers who meet the definition of ‘problem gamblers’ and push real and measurable social costs onto all of us. The best social scientists and public health research tells us that these costs outweigh the benefits by a ratio of about 3 to 1.”

Prichard and Rusche oppose expansion of video and electronic gambling, saying they are highly addictive. Something like paper slot machines, pull-tabs are operated by charities and sold exclusively in bars.

“You say the words ‘electronic pull tabs’ and it sounds so benign,” but these hand-held devices are like portable slot machines easily passed around a business establishment with little staff or overhead required, Rusche said. That could mean expanding gambling into thousands of locations, he said.  

Prichard added: “Targeting problem gamblers as the primary source of revenue to fund a stadium is just bad public policy.”

About the alliance between the two organizations, Rusche acknowledges it’s unusual. In October, they joined in with Citizens Against Gambling Expansion for a media event.

But he adds: “With the gambling issue, the political wedge isn’t between conservatives and liberals, it’s between those who study gambling’s effects and those who have a high need not to know.”

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 12/14/2011 - 11:23 am.

    Not a peep about Indian casino gambling.

  2. Submitted by John Ferman on 12/14/2011 - 11:45 am.

    How many times have we, buried in the interior of newspapers, read reports of embezzelments and other thefts and at the end a brief mention of gambling losses. How many small partnerships have been driven out of business because of gambling. Almost all of these tragedies have fallen below the reportorial radar of the news organizations. Is there any agency of government that tracks these incidents. Are there laws about tracking the social, small business, small institution, and individual incidents and costs.

  3. Submitted by J'M S on 12/14/2011 - 12:28 pm.

    When I think of human costs, I remember all the family holidays ruined by sports on TV. No playing with toys, no fun chatter or conversations, and that the incidents of domestic abuse rise on game days. Having lived through so much of this, I find it outrageous that I and others must continue to pay for these and subsidize our abuse at the bhese of mutli-millionaires continuing to be able to have their stadiums and have them paid for by those victimized in this, much less having sports broadcast or even allowed on ANY family holidays, incuding fishing opener over Mother’s day weekend. And, I LOVE fishing, but I am fed up with the insensitivity of so-called “sportsmen,” (Sports nuts) whom I DO NOT consider sporting at all. Gambling? Come on! What about the real HUMAN COST? Disappointed and injured children and women who forever carry the scars of “sports,” in one way or another.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/14/2011 - 12:43 pm.

    “Generally, it is understood people who gamble the most are the lower economic classes, so it’s a regressive tax as well,”

    Total nonsense. Gambling is a totally voluntary activity and so using gambling proceeds to pay for government is the MOST moral thing to do because there’s no coercion, threats of incarceration or wealth confiscation involved.

    Call it a “tax on the stupid” if you like, the bottom line is that it’s a legal and voluntary activity and ruling it out as a source of government revenue based on some phony morals reason is social engineering. These same people have no problem with a tax on alcohol and tobacco.

  5. Submitted by Michael Dahl on 12/14/2011 - 12:47 pm.

    Poor folks have lots of unfulfilled dreams (i.e. needs). Their jobs don’t pay enough, they fall behind on bills, so some of them sometimes decide to take a chance. Maybe “it can happen” (remember that gross slogan?). Invariably, when gambling, the dream-needs become nightmares.

    Of course, as noted in this piece, some gamblers are trapped in an addiction. So Minnesota would willingly be making money on gambling addictions (a sickness).

  6. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 12/14/2011 - 01:37 pm.

    I have only seen negative impacts of gambling — families ruined, bankruptcy, lost jobs, and increased crime. Nonetheless, the politicians keep trying to shove gambling down our throats to raise money for the rich.

  7. Submitted by dan buechler on 12/14/2011 - 03:34 pm.

    I know of two family members in my large family who have been impacted negatively by gambling. The cost is real.

  8. Submitted by Pete Barrett on 12/14/2011 - 05:12 pm.

    J’Marinde: “…the incidents of domestic abuse rise on game days.”?

    I’ve never heard of that. Years ago there was a quickly discredited study that showed a rise in domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday. But other than that, I’ve never heard of anything similar.

    Let’s see some documentation.

    I rarely attend or watch sporting events on TV.

  9. Submitted by Craig Westover on 12/14/2011 - 06:06 pm.


    Gambling revenue is not a “voluntary tax.” In fact, it is not a tax at all.

    Gambling is a voluntary activity, but there is no correlation between the activity and the tax. Consider revenue from gambling compared to revenue from the sales tax for a low to middle income person looking for a used car in the $12,000 range.

    Tax and license fees on a $12,000 care will run around $800 or so — an additional cost over and above the value of the car. $800 can be a deal breaker for some people, meaning they don’t purchase a car or they purchase a cheaper car. The tax affects the behavior.

    In the case of gambling, there is no correlation between the behavior and the tax. A person has $200 to gamble, the person gets to gamble the full $200 whether he goes to a racino or an Indian casino or an illegal bookie.

    Gambling “taxes” are less a tax really just a piece of the action — a way for the state to milk residents for money. Taxes should be painful — the pain justifies government use of the revenue. The painless collection of revenue eliminates government accountability for spending.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/14/2011 - 06:32 pm.

    It’s not the role of government to protect us from ourselves. Gambling is a legal activity as is alcohol and tobacco use.

    In a free society, we don’t restrict some people’s freedom because other people can’t handle their own.

  11. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/15/2011 - 08:47 am.

    …In a free society, we don’t restrict some people’s freedom because other people can’t handle their own….

    Dennis, perhaps you should consider the lowly stop sign–it restricts your freedom because others can’t handle their own.

  12. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 12/15/2011 - 09:01 am.

    J’Marinde: “…the incidents of domestic abuse rise on game days.”?

  13. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 12/15/2011 - 10:43 am.

    For some people, gambling is their ‘social activity’ just as smoking, bar hopping, sports attendance, bingo playing, et. al. is for others. It is their social choice. With that said, legislators (who have their own hypes) are in no position to give, or not give, their blessings on this topic.
    Instead, they need to concentrate on improving health and job opportunities for this State’s citizens….that is the premise of their previous election.

  14. Submitted by Jerry Buerge on 12/15/2011 - 03:56 pm.

    Both of these religious groups are missing the very salient point of the fact that people who gamble will gamble, no more or no less.

    The only issue here is whether or not they will choose to gamble with a source that satisfies their itch in a way that will also promote the continuation of a favored sports team such as the Vikings, instead of enriching the coffers of some other organization, which might even have some association with a religious entity.

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