They sat on their porch, rocking in red chairs, twiddling on smartphones. Tom, a twentysomething who can sometimes be heard in shouting matches with his mom about his living at home with no steady work, was betting on horse races. Stacy, a heavyset blonde woman and nursing home cook in her thirties, gambled on her phone via some offshore site. The rest of the family—great-grandma and grandpa, aunts, cousins, great-grandchildren—played and rocked and chatted, occasionally hearing updates on wins and losses.
“Are you going to the casinos there?” asked Wilma, the matriarch of the family, when I told her we’d be out of town for a week to visit family in Mississippi. Wilma and her husband live off his military pension and Social Security. Wilma clips coupons to save a few cents here and there on groceries and diapers for her great-grandbabies, but when she can she and her sister like to go to the casino on weekends.
“Not this time,” I say. “Just visiting family.”
Truth be told, I’ve never stepped into a casino, and neither have many of the people I know.
But for my neighbors on the porch, none of whom went to college and some of whom dropped out of high school, gambling is normal. According to a recently released report by the Council on Casinos (an independent group of scholars and public policy leaders convened by the Institute for American Values), low-income workers, minorities, retirees, and the disabled account for a disproportionate number of regional casino patrons. By making money disproportionately off the most vulnerable, casinos are a regressive, rather than progressive, policy.
Low-income workers, minorities, retirees, and the disabled account for a disproportionate number of regional casino patrons.
Thus, the authors of the report call regional casino expansion—like the one Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing in New York—“a feature of the institutional landscape of inequality in America today”:
State-sponsored casino gambling creates a stratified pattern that parallels the separate and unequal life patterns in education, marriage, work, and play that increasingly divide America into haves and have-nots. Those in the upper ranks of the income distribution rarely, if ever, make it a weekly habit to gamble at the local casino. Those in the lower ranks of the income distribution often do. Those in the upper ranks rarely, if ever, contribute a large share of their income to the state’s take of casino revenues. Those in the lower ranks do.
In other words, for those who are concerned about growing economic and family inequality, the rise of regional casinos should also be troubling. Especially given stories like that of the suburban mother of three whose gambling addiction led to foreclosure, divorce, and eventually suicide or the frequent reports of gamblers who leave their kids locked in cars in casino parking lots.
David Blankenhorn sums it up this way in his report New York’s Promise, part of the Casino Land series: “So much of the gambling ethic and its personal and social consequences—including debt servitude, addiction, alcohol abuse, depression, mendacity, crime, and time stolen from work and home—are the open enemies of strong families and healthy family life.”
And in my town, this “gambling ethic” that disadvantages families extends to lotteries, as well. In the trailer park down the street, residents are so demoralized by life’s hardships that they believe that the system is against them, that their best chance at a new life is not hard work, but luck. So sometimes buying lotto tickets is even seen as an investment. According to a 2006 survey by the Consumer Federation of America and the Financial Planning Association, 38% of those with incomes below $25,000 thought that winning the lottery was the most effective wealth-building strategy.
There was one time when a couple in the trailer park down the street did actually win the lottery, and moved out of their trailer into a custom-built home on a nearby hill. Inspired, some of the residents who stayed behind now walk past the Pentecostal church, past the halfway house, to the corner store to buy scratch tickets, in a fashion reminiscent of Brandy Clark’s song, “Pray to Jesus”:
So we pray to Jesus
and we play the lotto
cause there ain't but two ways
we can change tomorrow
Part of building strong families is restoring hope that there are more ways than two to change tomorrow—and correcting policies, regional casino expansion included, that contribute to “the institutional landscape of inequality.”