AS IF WE WEREN'T having trouble enough picking a leader of the free world from the choices available to us, along comes the District of Columbia referendum on whether to legalize city-run lottery and daily numbers games.
Times are tough all over.
I deeply believe that the people of this city deserve the freedom of choice about whether they want legalized gambling, but I know with certainty that if Washington becomes America's newest gambling territory, the people who are going to get zapped are those who can least afford to gamble. In my heart, I know the poor are going to get wiped out by it in the name of fiscal progress.
The choice was easier last spring when the gambling initiative was so objectionably drawn that citizens in seven of the city's eight wards rejected it. By comparison, next Tuesday's referendum has come in as clean as my sister's linoleum -- it contains only "numbers" betting and lotteries. The more objectionable dog racing and jai alai were sliced off the old initiative along with a number of flaws that proved fatal in May.
There are those who will argue against this on grounds of morality and they have their reasons, which are historic. Regardless of one's views of the moral aspects, a consensus against city-run legalized gambling can be drawn on other concerns: What will gambling do to the stability of families and the city? What effect will it have on our young people? What ultimately will it do to our economy?
The gambling advocates proclaim the money it would add to city coffers. They say the city would net as much as an estimated $30 million annually. But studies have shown that people who are at the bottom of the barrell financially lack the social and economic constraints to resist the lure to better their lot through gambling.
Many blacks still look upon numbers as their way out of the ghetto. The numbers writer is their stockbroker. The last thing the average guy on the street needs is to be able to get off the Metro and play his last five bucks on the numbers every evening. Ironically, the illegal numbers writer limits the amount he permits his customers to play. If a $5 customer wants to begin to consistently up his ante, he refuses to let him overplay because he rightly anticipates the grief that will result when the player's wife shows up to tell him the rent money has been blown.
No such brake will operate in the legalized lottery. This is not to say the illegal lottery is a giant charity; it is a rip-off pure and simple, putting an estimated $300 million into criminal hands each year. But it may very well be that, instead of helping financially, the money raised for the city treasury in the legalized lottery would be less than that paid out in welfare and other benefits to individuals and families when increased people are in need or begin losing their homes and property after being lured to gamble by city ads as slick as those that sell Tide detergent.
Proponents of the gambling initiatives are fond of saying that gambling is voluntary, that no one is being forced to go into a liquor store and plunk down his money to play. But that assumes a level of sophistication and control of will that is missing from many in our consumer economy. That is misleading, for our economy is built upon the assumption that a certain segment of the population won't be able to resist the pitch of advertising, that they may be of age chronologically but not emotionally or psychologically.
While the truly dirty money usually is associated with casino gambling, jai alai and dog racing, even the lottery can be rigged. One of my favorite stories is the way Pennsylvania insisted that there was no way the lottery could be rigged. But six months later a state grand jury was recommending that indictments be brought against six persons for, you guessed it, rigging the lottery.
Then there is the sensitive issue of corruption of public officials. Mob members have told Senate investigators that gambling inevitably leads to corruption of public officials because the temptations are so great they can't resist. And police officials say once the door is opened to numbers and lottery, dog racing, jai alai and casino often are not far behind.
And can anyone forget the answer former Rep. Michael (Ozzie) Meyers (D-Pa.) gave on the Abscam tapes to the FBI agents representing a phony Arab "sheik" when they bought his influence? He responded: "Money talks and bull---- walks" . . . adding. . . "and it works the same way down in Washington." This is not to say Meyers is representative of every public official, but Washington is a national city and whatever takes place here attracts people from around the world. While there is nothing to indicate that lobbyists would stay away because of corruption, it would surely affect the current moves to lure businesses to locate jobs in areas of high unemployment such as the inner city. Businesses scrutinize the social atmosphere and climate as assiduously as economic demographics, and if we ever want to diversify this company (government) town we'd better think ahead a few years.
Finally, I suspect the lottery is, in essence, a highly regressive tax in which those at the lower end of the income scale pay a much higher percentage of their total income through this tax for government services.