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More on the economic effect of casinos

I’m just noting this for the record, since I am sure that gambling expansion will come up again in The Lege this spring.

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 University of Georgia’s Earl Grinols, Baylor’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.

Some of these studies are several years old, so it is certainly possible that things have changed. I’m sure the casinos and racetracks will have their own data to add to the debate as well. Given that there’s already a lot of casino-like gambling going on in Texas, it may be that we’re already suffering most of the ill effects we’d see with casinos without getting any of the benefits. Like I said, I’m just noting this for future reference when the subject comes up again.

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