Reverse Robin Hood

Last fall I was at a conference in Detroit held in a hotel attached to a casino.

“Did you go onto the casino floor?” my boss asked me. Along with our room keys, we were given tokens to spend in the casino. I admitted I hadn’t. “You really should,” he said. “It’s the most astoundingly depressing thing. No one looks like they are having fun.” When you’ve recently had a tour of some of Detroit’s hardest hit neighborhoods, that’s saying something.

I never did make myself walk past the wall of cigarette smoke to see what he was talking about, but the people I passed in the corridor where the hallway to the parking garage and casino met sure didn’t look chipper either.

Meanwhile, a childhood friend of mine is working security in Atlantic City, and reports shootings within earshot with astonishing regularity. As a Jersey girl, I went to Atlantic City for All-State orchestra performances, and I think nowhere I’ve ever been has reached AC’s extreme of garish excess in one tiny strip that benefited the rest of the crumbling, bereft city not at all. Us suburban teens stared in horror at the streets the buses brought us through—and then stayed firmly on the boardwalk, happy to keep our rebellion to edicts other than staying inside the well-policed carnival.

Anecdotes, of course, are not the stuff of public policy, but as we face a proposal to place a casino somewhere in our region, with Albany and Rensselaer sites under consideration, we can turn to data as well, thanks to the Institute for American Values, which has issued a damning report that collects and organizes a wide range of research (much commissioned in other countries because our own government has let the gambling industry itself do all its own research.) It can be found here. I’ve not always been on the same side of issues as IAV, but I was impressed with this report, and I suggest everyone weighing in on the subject read it thoroughly. I wish, in fact, that we’d all had it in hand before the question of allowing casinos was on the ballot last year. It deserved more attention than it got.

Some of the most important points of the report include the way that modern regional casinos differ from the Las Vegas destination casinos many of us picture. They are full of computerized slot machines that don’t operate by random chance, but by sophisticated, psychologically manipulative algorithms designed to keep people “in the zone” and losing big. There’s a reason they were illegal for so long.

Casino operators like to talk about how they cater to occasional gamblers who come there for entertainment, but casual gamblers, while they make up 75 percent of the clientele, generate only 4 percent of a regional casino’s profits by one study. And gamblers with a measurable gambling problem generate anywhere from 33 to 62 percent of their profit, according to 11 different studies. Casinos require frequent, problem gamblers for their very existence.

This means a few things. First, it means that all of the tax revenue they generate is wickedly regressive—it’s taking money from the pockets of poor people and splitting it between governments and wealthy corporate owners.

And will that short-term infusion of cash be a net gain when the slightly longer term costs start to hit? When the foreclosures mount, property values drop, and crime rises as vulnerable populations have their income and assets drained away? Is it worth it when the free food and entertainment casinos use to draw in customers undercuts local businesses and they close, as nearly half of Atlantic City’s restaurants did after gambling was legalized there? Worth it when taxpayers have to bail out the casino once the market is saturated?

To quote from the IAV report: “Evidence suggests that the opening of a new regional casino may offer an economic stimulus to distressed communities, but the stimulus fades over time. . . . Casinos do not revive local economies. They act as parasites upon them. Communities located within 10 miles of a casino exhibit double the rate of problem gambling. Unsurprisingly, such communities also suffer higher rates of home foreclosure and other forms of economic distress and domestic violence.”

The people of Albany will be told that it will be here or Rensselaer. But frankly, neither Albany nor Rensselaer should lay themselves open to the long term consequences of this type of development, as tempting as the short term benefits seem. It’s just another in a long line of illusory silver bullets that will leave us more distressed than we started.

Rather than letting ourselves be played against each other, we should join together to bravely say no to this terrible idea, and commit together to cooperative, high-road economic development that will last, and that isn’t based on exploiting those who are already struggling.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on April 10, 2015.)

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