By John Long
It’s a new month, a new year, and a new decade, and with them comes a new political balance in Richmond. The Democrats have taken the majority in both houses of the General Assembly, with the Governor’s Mansion also in the same party’s hands. The voters have spoken, and changes are inevitably coming.
But this doesn’t mean, of course, that every political idea that will be bounced around Richmond in coming weeks will be a good one. I’m a bit concerned about one proposal in particular. It involves raising revenue through what supporters euphemistically call “gaming.” That term is a few letters shy of accuracy. What they really mean is gambling, and I can’t see that there’s much public virtue in it.
Gov. Ralph Northam has suggested the legislature mull state regulation and taxation of electronic “skill games” that have, completely unbeknownst to me, become popular in the Commonwealth. In addition, a continuing debate over legalizing sports betting and casino gambling in Virginia will resume — several communities have recently been suggested as homes for casinos.
The thinking is, as I understand it, that taxing such activities could offset declining revenues from the Virginia Lottery, which seems to have become less popular as other forms of gambling have caught on. Now, I confess that I’ve never thought the lottery was a good idea—I’ve always considered it a tax on people who don’t understand math well enough.
Having never bought a lottery ticket, but having stood in line behind people who have, I’ve often considered that they are inevitably wasting their money. However, in contrast to other gambling ventures, they’re only usually wasting a small amount--$5, $10, $20. Some people may have gambled away their lunch money on lottery tickets, but not usually the rent money.
Casino gambling or sports betting, on the other hand, are potentially much more nefarious. Gambling is associated with a full menu of social ills, from rampant crime to increased divorce to enhanced poverty. It’s undeniable that for far too many who are lured in, gambling becomes an addiction, as real an addiction as heroin dependency. It’s an addiction demonstrably linked to impoverished families, increased homelessness, and neglected children.
Studies have found strong links between gambling and domestic violence, family abandonment, and increased alcoholism/ drug use. Of those who develop a gambling addiction, 20% attempt suicide at some point of despair.
Gambling promises a chance to get rich quick but delivers a method to get poor even quicker. Because when you stop and think about it, institutional gambling is a fraud perpetrated on the participants by those who profit from misery. There is one undeniable fact upon which gambling has to revolve: an incredibly high percentage of those who gamble have to lose. It’s the only way to sustain the whole enterprise. If gambling was as lucrative for casino customers as they hope, the place would go out of business in short order. It’s an unalterable fact: the house wins; you lose. If you happen to win in the short term, you’ll lose in the long run. There’s no way around the math, or else the whole house of cards would collapse.
Proponents will point to rosy projections of revenue and the benefits of public expenditures. Think of all the good we’ll do with this influx of tax money! Schools built, teachers hired, technology installed, opportunities provided! Casinos provide jobs, attract tourists, and give hard-working folks a fun outing on the weekends! Who could be opposed?
And yet, and yet, these same arguments could be made about legalizing and taxing all manner of social ills. Even if some enjoy resulting advantages, others, more invisible, bear the burden. The child who has no breakfast because mom frittered away the grocery money doesn’t think of the “greater good.” The family that has been abandoned so dad can pursue his habit won’t feel better because a neighbor has a job at a casino. The clerk shot in a robbery attempt by a gambling addict doesn’t smile on the way to the hospital because some higher purpose has been satisfied.
I wrote a couple of years ago: “of course, not every gambler who might walk into Colonial Downs will experience such personal calamities. But too many will have their lives turned upside down; will lose sight of what is truly important and worthwhile.” Our state legislators should carefully pause and consider the social side effects of the proposed gambling initiatives. None of it strikes me as a good bet.
Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.