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    What America Thinks
    Raising the Stakes

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, August 16, 1999

    Most Americans who gamble say they wager to make money and not simply to be entertained, according to a team of researchers who studied public opinion toward gambling.

    Writing in the latest issue of Public Perspective, Rachel Volberg, president of Gemini Research, and two researchers at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (NORC) document dramatic shifts in attitudes toward gambling.

    One of the most dramatic and ominous shifts has occurred in the reasons people bet. In 1975, seven in 10 Americans told NORC poll-takers that they gambled for the "excitement or challenge of gambling," and well under half said making money was an important reason. Not so today: Two in three – 66 percent – now say they bet "to win money."

    African Americans were far more likely than either whites or Latinos to say they gambled to make money. Seventy-eight percent of blacks but 63 percent of whites and 65 percent of Hispanics saw gambling as a source of income, wrote Volberg and Marianna Toce, a NORC senior research analyst, and Dean Gerstein, senior research vice president at NORC.

    The gambling industry has grown tenfold in the past 25 years, they report. Nearly nine in 10 adults – 86 percent – say they've gambled sometime in their lives, up from 61 percent in the 1975 NORC poll. A Gallup poll earlier this year found that seven in 10 Americans had wagered "legally" in the previous year. (One caution: There's considerable variation in the definition of "legalized" gambling.

    Fifty-two percent of the Gallup respondents said investing in the stock market was a form of gambling, but 22 percent didn't consider buying a state-sponsored lottery ticket as gambling and a third said that playing poker with friends wasn't gambling.)

    People certainly have the opportunity to wager legally. Gambling of one form or another is legal in every state except Utah, Tennessee and Hawaii. Thirty-seven states have lotteries, 28 states have casinos and 22 states have off-track betting.

    The authors report that Americans continue to hold ambivalent views toward gambling. Fewer than a third – 29 percent – believe gambling is "immoral," according to the recent Gallup survey. Yet there's some evidence that the public's appetite for taxing gambling revenue as a substitute for other forms of taxation may be increasing, the authors claim.

    According to surveys conducted for Harrah's casino and hotel, the proportion who agreed that "gambling is harmless fun and the government should make it legal so it can be regulated and taxed" has increased from 41 percent in 1992 to 55 percent this year.

    Still, Gallup found this year that only 22 percent of adults favored further expansion of legal gambling, while 47 percent favored no change and 29 percent wanted to restrict or end legalized gambling.

    "While most gambling has moved from the back room into the living room, most Americans hold complex and ambivalent rather than simple pro or anti attitudes about the effects of gambling on society," they write.

    The contrary tugs people feel about gambling are revealed in other questions. Two in three adults believe casinos boost a local economy. But nearly as many – 56 percent – also say that casinos "damage everyday family and community life."

    Americans have other objections to gambling. A 1996 Gallup survey found that two in three Americans believe legalized gambling "encourages the people who can least afford it to squander their money." Six in 10 "believe that legalized gambling can make a compulsive gambler out of a person who would never gamble illegally."

    Many people report they've had personal experience with the unhappy consequences of excessive or compulsive gambling. Half of those interviewed by Gallup this year reported they knew someone who has had a problem with gambling. A third of those interviewed in a Scripps-Howard survey in 1996 said they personally knew someone whose gambling caused him or her financial problems.

    While not quite the new third rail of American politics, legalized gambling is becoming increasingly tough to oppose. "The only incumbent governors to lose their seats in the 1998 elections opposed the establishment of state lotteries, and two gubernatorial candidates lost after expressing their opposition to expanded gambling in their states," the authors wrote. The only anti-gambling initiatives that passed in 1998 were in Arizona and Missouri, where residents voted to outlaw cockfighting.

    That's not to say legalized gambling will continue to grow. "History suggests that where commercial gambling operations cater solely to local customers, they are eventually outlawed," they wrote. "As growing numbers of Americans are able to gamble in their homes as well as where they work and where they play, it remains to be seen whether attitudes toward legal gambling will tip back toward the negative."

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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