Gambling and the Common Good

[Demi] Moore's strong flair for taking risks for jumbo-sized payouts showed up clearly when she dared to pose nude and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair....In fact, Moore's whole life story is one any lottery player can relate to: a tale of big risks against long odds and true winner's rewards.

-From a celebrity "profile" of actress Demi Moore in the January 1996 Lotto World: America's Lottery Magazine.

Put aside questions about gambling's potentially negative effects on local economies, families, and society as a whole. From a faith perspective, a more basic reason to oppose gambling will remain: It is a spiritual parasite.

Gambling feeds off of resources, energy, and hope that could be turned toward the common good, and spawns false understandings of what is of true value. The meaning of words like "play," "excitement," "courage," "winning," "risk," and "security" become distorted and empty. Gambling may sometimes bring what seem like concrete benefits to individuals or communities, but an exorbitant price in soul and culture is paid. And, despite gambling industry claims of easy gain and wealth to share, there is evidence that most often the monetary cost is exorbitant as well.

The gambling industry in the United States has grown at an unprecedented rate during the last few years. Some form of gambling is legal in every state except Utah and Hawaii. According to U.S. News and World Report, $482 billion was wagered legally in this country during 1994. State lotteries raise more than $40 billion annually in funds for governments.

This growth has far outpaced reliable research on gambling's impact on communities. The industry promises economic salvation-job creation, tax revenues, an influx of new money-to entice states to legalize casinos. Those same promises cause some of the poorest towns and areas (manufacturing towns whose industries have died or fled, Indian reservations, struggling agricultural regions) to scramble for casinos. But there is not an abundance of objective research to guide such government and community decisions.

Congress will likely vote this year for a national commission to study legalized gambling, a helpful move (and one being fiercely opposed by the American Gaming Association, the gambling industry's lobbying arm). And already some evidence does exist that far from creating the promised economic utopias, gambling at best brings mixed results.

Profits and tax revenues do usually flow, but new jobs at casinos are often offset by jobs lost from local businesses (such as restaurants) hurt by the casino's arrival. Money coming in to local governments from gambling tax revenues is balanced by extra funds going out for increased demands on the criminal justice system, social services, and civic infrastructures.

ALL THE WHILE, of course, the gambling industry and state-run lotteries are pulling in abundant profits, in large part extracted from the dreams of the poor and middle class. Having often given up on working their way out of poverty in an economy of diminishing opportunities, the poorest people spend a disproportionately higher percentage of their incomes on lotteries. State advertising of lotteries plays off of this, being most heavily concentrated in low-income areas. In effect, lotteries are "voluntary taxation," often of those with the least. This is doubly ironic considering the trend toward slashing government spending on social programs that most benefit the poor.

While the percentage of people for whom gambling becomes an addiction may be fairly small, the impact on their families and the surrounding social fabric can be quite devastating. Divorce, lost jobs, stealing (to pay gambling debts), depression, and suicide are all more prevalent among compulsive gamblers.

There are some sure signs of hope in the face of the gambling industry's rampant growth and the attendant economic and social damage, especially (but not exclusively) among people of faith. Mainline churches that have historically taken stands against gambling, such as the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA), have both reaffirmed their stance and increased education efforts among their members. In January, the Mennonite Board of Missions co-sponsored a "casino consultation" in Gulfport, Mississippi (14 casinos are in that area). The consultation focused on how Mennonite congregations can theologically and pastorally respond to gambling in their community.

In an unusual move, the traditionally liberal National Council of Churches and the conservative Christian Coalition have jointly spoken out against the spread of gambling. Representatives of both groups spoke at a news conference announcing the opening of the Washington, D.C. office of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling (NCALG).

Tom Grey, a United Methodist pastor, serves as field coordinator and spokesperson for NCALG, a grassroots, low-budget group which has successfully stopped or slowed gambling expansion in several states and communities across the country. The group encompasses both religious and secular members and has united people across the political and faith spectrums.

Many people, of course, participate in gambling for no other reason than they find it fun. And in uncertain times, the prospect of a small outlay bringing in a large return is unmistakably appealing. But the concepts of "something for nothing" and "winner take all" are not quite what our faith says about life, hope, and love for our neighbor. They are no more appropriate for good public policy.

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