Lack of the Data about Gambling Social and Economic Impact in The US
to public demand: A number of election campaigns and referenda have been successfully waged on the issue of legalizing or expanding gambling.
THE LACK OF INFORMATION
Presumably, many of the debates could be settled if either the benefits or costs of gambling could be shown to be significantly greater than the other. But such a neat resolution has evaded would-be arbiters. Efforts to assess the various claims by proponents and opponents quickly encounter gambling’s third defining characteristic¾the lack of reliable information. Regarding gambling, the available information on economic and social impact is spotty at best and usually inadequate for an informed discussion let alone decision. On examination, much of what Americans think they know about gambling turns out to be exaggerated or taken out of context. And much of the information in circulation is inaccurate or even false, although often loudly voiced by adherents. Add to this the fact that many of the studies that do exist were contracted by partisans of one point of view or another and uncertainty becomes an understandable result. Nevertheless, decisions must be made and governments have shown little hesitation in making them.
The problem is not simply one of gathering information. Legalized gambling on a wide scale is a new phenomenon in modern America and much of the relevant research is in its infancy. Many phenomena are only now beginning to be recognized and defined, a prerequisite to gathering useful information. And many of the key variables are difficult to quantify: Can the dollar costs of divorce or bankruptcy adequately capture the human suffering caused by problem gambling?
The more difficult the measurement; the more the weighing of competing claims retreats from science to art or, with even greater uncertainty, to politics. Nevertheless, the lack of information will not reduce the pressures on governments to make decisions.
To take but one example: What are the economic impacts of gambling? The answer in great part depends on the context selected. On an individual basis, it is obvious that some people benefit and others do not, including both gamblers and nongamblers. The larger the group examined, however, the more ambiguous the possible conclusions. Single communities boasting a positive impact can readily be found, but the radius of their concerns usually does not extend to surrounding areas where negative consequences for others may surface as a direct consequence of this good fortune, such as loss of business, increases in crime, reduced tax revenues, and problem gamblers taking their problems home.
For example, gambling has been touted as an instrument of economic development, especially for poorer areas. In communities like Tunica, Mississippi, the arrival of large-scale gambling has had a highly visible and generally positive role, bringing with it capital investment, increased tax revenues, and enhanced public services, as well as vastly expanded employment opportunities and health-care benefits for many people who formerly were without much of either. But some argue that that prosperity is offset by negative impacts in the surrounding area, including nearby Memphis, a major source of casino patrons. But even if the communities in the immediate area were seen to benefit, or at least not to suffer, what can be said about the impact beyond? Is California hurt, helped, or left untouched by gambling in Nevada? Some claim that Californians leave their spending money and tax dollars in Nevada and bring back a slew of economic and social costs, such as pathological gambling. There are surprisingly few independent studies that have addressed issues such as these. And as for the impact on the national economy, efforts to estimate the net impact of gambling on national statistics such as investment, savings, economic growth, and so forth, break down in the face of our limited knowledge.
But even when the economic benefits are clear and agreed upon, there are other equally important issues to be decided. In fact, the heart