Studies: Casinos bring jobs, but also crime, bankruptcy, and even suicide

October 30, 2012

(Katherine Frey - The Washington Post)

While the presidential race is taking up much of the oxygen this cycle, many states have important ballot initiatives on the ballot next Tuesday as well.

Maryland is considering a proposal that would allow table games at the state's five casinos, as well as approve the creation of a sixth in Prince George's County, near DC. The proposal is touted as a way to fund education — for which the funds it generates will be earmarked — and, ironically, the opposition to it is mainly funded by owners of rival casinos. But economic research concerning casinos suggest that members of communities with casinos should be wary.

Melissa Kearney, an economist at the University of Maryland, released a literature review in 2005 summarizing work on gambling done to date. A study by Maryland's William Evans and Julie Topoleski that focused on Indian casinos found that they created a significant number of jobs. The ratio of jobs available to adults increased, on average, by 5 percent. This in turn lead to a 2 percent decline in mortality, as residents' economic conditions improved.

But the casinos also lead to a plethora of social ills, including increased substance abuse, mental illness and suicide, violent crime, auto theft and larceny, and bankruptcy. The latter three all increased by 10 percent in communities that allowed gambling.

Other work backs up the crime finding. The Baylor's Earl Grinols, University of Georgia's David Mustard, and the University of Illinois' Cynthia Dilley found that 8 percent of crime in counties with casinos was attributable to their presence, a crime increase that cost residents, on average, $65 a year.

And the bankruptcy finding has been replicated as well. The St. Louis Fed's Thomas Garrett and Mark Nichols found that Mississippi riverboat gambling increases bankruptcies not just in Mississippi, but in counties outside the state where many residents gamble in Mississippi. The effect was largest in neighboring states, with the Mississippi casinos responsible with a 0.24 percentage point increase in bankruptcy filings. Interestingly, other casinos — such as Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and so forth — didn't have statistically significant effects on other areas' bankruptcy rates.

Unsurprisingly, legalized gambling also exacerbates problems with gambling addictions. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission found that having a casino within 50 miles doubles one's likelihood to become a problem gambler. That suggests that the new DC-adjacent Maryland casino could create major addiction problems here in the District.

The evidence on casino gambling's distributional impact is much weaker than that concerning state lotteries, but there is extensive evidence that the latter amounts to a regressive tax, given that lottery ticket purchasers are disproportionately poor. But some evidence — admittedly from industry groups — suggests that casino-goers are richer than the average American, so the story could be quite different than with lotteries.

But as with the liquor industry, much if not most of the gambling industry's revenue come from addicts. Grinols estimates that 52 percent of revenue at the typical casino comes from problem gamblers, while an Ontario study put the figure at 35 percent and a Louisiana one at 42 percent. So even if gambling takes more money from the middle-class than the poor, it largely takes that money from middle-class people who aren't exactly rationally willing to spend it.

Casinos aren't even a particularly good source of tax revenue. Kearney notes that a number of studies have found that Indian casinos cannibalize business at nearby restaurants and bars, and in so doing actually reduce state tax revenue.

Like most ballot proposals, Maryland's question 7 involves tradeoffs, and one could reasonably argue the benefits in terms of jobs created and education funded outweigh the costs in terms of crime, bankruptcy, and problem gambling. But those costs are real and, the evidence suggests, very large.

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