At the convenience store in my rural town, there is a new “wall” of plastic boxes filled with colorful lottery scratch-off tickets, right on the counter, crowding my effort to check out.
I noted as much to the employee behind the counter. She cast a furtive eye around, then scrunched her pretty face into a frown: “I don’t go for them. I see too many buying tickets who shouldn’t.”
You can’t avoid gambling in Illinois. The state is, for example, home to 30,000 video slot and poker terminals, more than any state in the nation, in 6,800 taverns and restaurants, more gambling locations than in Nevada.
All that is before the recent expansion of gambling approved by our lawmakers and governor – online sports betting; more casinos, video terminals and locations (truck stops added); and higher betting limits. According to the state’s legislative research agency, Illinois is destined to become the second-biggest gambling state in the nation by revenue.
If a person wants to gamble, fine with me, but should the state be in the business of aggressively seducing residents into it? Policymakers trumpet the revenue to the state, although every dollar to the state is a buck lost by a gambler.
A good friend of mine committed suicide a few years back because of gambling debts racked up at a casino. More recently, a lady I know lost the love of her life after pilfering deep into six figures from him to support her gambling problem.
So there are benefits and costs. On the plus side, the state generates about 3% of its revenue from legal gambling. Some older folks I know relieve the boredom of their lives by spending a few hours on the nearby boats. And fantasy value: From time to time I dream deliciously about all I would do with the millions in winnings from hitting the Big Lotto, or whatever they call it – even though I never purchase a ticket.
Gambling is, overall, a quest for fool’s gold. State and local governments (mostly the state) and the gambling industry are the big winners. The average family in Illinois spends $750 a year on lottery tickets, the state keeps about 40% after prizes. In 2018, video gaming took in $1.4 billion after winnings, with the industry keeping about $1 billion.
Various sources suggest that 2% to 3% of adults are problem gamblers, who by definition cause harm to themselves or others as a result of the urge to gamble. That would be 40,000 to 60,000 people in Illinois. SMR Research found a few years ago that 14% of bankruptcies nationwide were tied to gambling.
The poor don’t gamble more dollars than the better-off, but they lose a bigger slice of their incomes. Think of the family stress and heartbreak from gambling by those without the money to spare.
Governments ballyhoo the great things they will do with the losses of gamblers: solve education funding problems and build university laboratories, for example. The money helps, yet the revenues are almost always less than projected, and, at 4% of total revenue, expanded gambling won’t solve our state’s fiscal woes.
Do the benefits exceed the costs? No one knows, although there is an academic cottage industry devoted to gambling studies. How do you value the fantasy benefits, which I think are real? How do you assign a dollar cost to suicides and family breakup?
Illinois is not going to pull back anytime soon from its addiction to gambling revenue.
So, I have a modest suggestion. Since Illinois is becoming a “leader” in gambling, and thus a natural laboratory, let’s devote a tiny slice of our gambling revenues to ongoing research into the underlying costs and benefits of gambling in our state. We have respected think tanks at our public universities. Annual reports of their research could help guide us to policies that improve the ratio of benefits to costs, whatever they might be. It’s the least we can do.
• Jim Nowlan is president of Stark County Communications, which publishes newspapers in his rural home county in central Illinois.