Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Letter to Our City Council Concerning Video Gambling

In 2009, the state of Illinois passed a law which made any coin operated gambling machines which were not monitored by the state illegal.  This law was aimed at video gambling machines known as "gray machines".  Gray machines are ones that claim to be for entertainment purposes only, much like any other video game or coin operated pool table.  The machines themselves do not pay out any winnings.  However, these machines do keep track of "credits" which the person playing can then turn in to the person at the register for cash winnings.  Thus the revenue created by these machines is driven by the possibility of winnings just like a slot machine or any other form of video gambling.  As of August 20th, the state law passed in 2009 will begin to be enforced and as a result these gray machines will be removed from our town.  However, the state has licensed new video gambling machines which are monitored (and thereby taxed)by the state that can legally take the place of the old gray machines.  The City of Clinton currently bans all forms of gambling so if everything stays as it is now then after August 20th the old gray machines will be banned by state law and the new state-approved machines will be banned by city law and all forms of video gambling would effectively eliminated in our town.  However, our city council is considering a partial lifting of the city's ban on gambling in order to allow the new state approved machines to take the place of the gray machines that will be removed.  This consideration is being made for the sake of the businesses and fraternal organizations in Clinton which currently operate gray machines and depend on the revenue they produce.  As I understand it, the city council discussed this issue at its most recent council meeting and is currently undecided as to what action it will ultimately take but will probably decide by the next city council meeting on August 20th.  

Below is a copy of the letter I recently sent to our city council to express my own opinion regarding video gambling in our town.  I share this here not as any kind of crusade or campaign but simply to help inform any one else who lives in our town and might take the time to read it.  I pray that the Christian community within Clinton will engage our council members on this issue with the utmost humility and grace.  

Members of the Clinton City Council,

Thank you for your tireless work and dedication as council members.  I am grateful for all of the time and energy that each of you have given and continue to give on behalf of the city of Clinton.  I know that being a leader often means making difficult decisions on complex issues and I am thankful for a council that takes the necessary time to weigh the many sides of these issues in order to make an informed decision. 

As I understand it, you have one such difficult and complex issue before you now in the form of the new state-approved video gambling machines and whether or not to lift the existing city ban on gambling.  I have been informed that a number of businesses and fraternal organizations in Clinton currently depend on the substantial revenue they receive from the "gray machines" that are soon to be removed.  I also understand that it is out of concern for the continued success of these businesses and organizations that the city council would consider lifting the current city ban in order to allow these new video gambling machines in Clinton.  As a resident of Clinton and as someone who is actively involved in promoting the well-being of our community, I share this concern for the continued viability of our businesses and other community organizations. Like you, I also want to see our businesses prosper and our neighborhoods thrive.  However, I do not believe that the presence of video gambling in our town serves that common effort.  In fact, there are a number of reasons why I think lifting our current ban in order to allow these new video gambling machines actually works against our common goals. 

First, gambling in any form almost always end up working as a regressive tax, drawing revenue from those individuals and families who can least afford it.  Using state lotteries as one example, we find that "players with household incomes under $10,000 bet nearly three times as much on lotteries as those with incomes over $50,000."[1]  The possibility of that "big win" will always be more of a draw to those who spend each day struggling to pay their bills than it will be to those who already live in relative comfort.  Likewise, I have found in my own work with low-income families that the needs of today often seem so pressing that it is difficult to give any thought to the needs of next month or next year.  All forms of gambling prey on this short-term focus in that they unreasonably appeal to the possibility of immediate pay out while minimizing the long-term costs, thereby encouraging the very mode of thinking which often sustains the cycle of poverty.  Of course, one can argue that every individual, regardless of economic standing, has the same freedom to abstain from gambling but to make such an argument is to fail to understand how economic circumstances leave some individuals and families more vulnerable to the costs of gambling than others.  Gambling in general is a practice which is more likely to increase the problems of poverty than it is to drive us toward prosperity.

Second, video gambling machines in particular have been shown to be one of the most potentially destructive forms of gambling available while also offering the least amount of benefit to the communities which employ them.  "Most working in the field [of gambling research] agree that a strong relationship exists between problem gambling and EGM's [Electronic Gambling Machines]."[2]  Distinctive characteristics of these machines such as the speed of play, easy accessibility, and the appearances of near misses all encourage one to forget about the money already lost and focus on that small chance of "winning it all," thereby increasing the probability that a casual gambler will become a problem gambler.  Furthermore, studies have found that the presence of these machines usually do not provide significant benefit to the community at large.  Although they may provide some revenue to the businesses that operate them, they are less likely to provide the kind of secondary benefits that other forms of gambling claim to provide (i.e. the large number of jobs provided by casinos or funding for educational or social programs provided by state lotteries). 

In addition to the mere economics of the matter, there are also the social and personal costs to our community to consider.  How does one measure the cost of a family broken by the gambling losses of one of its members?  To be sure, we could calculate the financial costs of lost productivity and work-hours resulting from a gambling addiction, the money spent on counseling for a recovering gambling addict, and the funding for the social programs needed to keep such a family out of a dire situation and those calculations alone would probably be enough to convince us that the presence of video gambling in our community is not to our economic benefit.  But how will we measure the cost of a mother who knows she has failed her family? How can we quantify the cost of a child who watched his father throw away his chance for an opportunity in this life just so he could keep playing a video game?

Of course, this is not really a choice between the social needs of our community and the economics ones.  It is not a matter of weighing the needs of our businesses and fraternal organizations against the needs of individuals and families.  Obviously, as a community all of those needs, all of us as individuals and families are bound up together, connected to one another.  What is good for the families and individuals of Clinton will be good for the businesses and organizations of Clinton as well.  The long term economic benefits of the absence of gambling in our town will far outweigh the immediate revenue produced by any form of video gambling.  The absence of video gambling in our city will be one less opportunity for individuals to engage in unwise financial practices. This is turn means an opportunity for more sound financial standing for our families and an increase in economic prosperity for our town which is, of course, to the benefit of everyone in Clinton, especially its businesses. 

I thank you so much for taking the time to read this letter and continuing to weigh the arguments concerning this important issue.  Regardless of the outcome concerning this issue, I thank you for your faithful service as members of our city council. 

Rev. David Young
Clinton Church of the Nazarene

[1] Final Report of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, 14.
[2] "Electronic Gambling Machines and Problem Gambling".  (Responsible Gambling Council, 2006), 6.  

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