Betting Bug Bites Deep

by Steven R. Van Hook  
November 20, 1994
Santa Barbara Independent

Want to make a bet?

I'd be willing to wager the majority of web surfers are going to sail right by this piece, without even a wink on their merry way to the ZUG pranks or alt.binaries.bestiality.puppies. I'd also gamble that if anything captures their eye, it will be the above first sentence.

The betting bug bores deep into us -- like a gold fever infection -- the prospect of high gain for little investment is a difficult bewitchment to ignore.

The gambling industry knows and banks on this. Betting is big business. How big? In 1992, Americans spent more on gambling than was spent on books, movies, recorded music and amusement parks (Disney take note!) combined.

Tally receipts from Las Vegas, church bingo, Indian tribe gaming, riverboat casinos, state lotteries, sports bets, dog and horse racing and other legal wagering in '92, and Americans ponied up some $330 billion in gambling stakes (that's a gain of 1,800 percent since 1976).

More Americans now make trips to casinos than they do to Major League ballparks. Casino gambling is allowed in some 23 states, and 37 states operate their own lotteries.

How do the media cover this mega-phenomenon? It's a question that must certainly be on the minds of editors allocating ink and airtime to multi-million-dollar lottery winners and flashy new Indian casinos across the country.

It's also on the minds of editors at the Columbia Journalism Review (January 1994), which ran a piece on how reporters should cover the betting boom (what they call "one of the biggest local stories of the decade"). Among some of the problems facing reporters on this story, per the CJR:

It's understandably hard to be editorially critical of an industry which promises so much development, so many jobs, so much profit.

Media everywhere run stories of huge Vegas jackpots as straight news. Television news often treats the state lottery as a breaking story, even announcing lottery results within a newscast (something I refused to do as news director and anchor for an NBC affiliate).

OK. So words like "morality" and "ethics" and "social awareness" have been co-opted by elitist reactionaries. If the ethical and moral questions surrounding gambling are too mushy to address, how about checking out the economic and community toll?

It's well documented that gambling is economically regressive, with poorer people gambling a disproportionate share of their income. The poor grab at a long-shot opportunity to break out of their ensnaring poverty and pay a higher price for it.

Americans suffered a record $35 billion in gambling losses over 1995. A Harvard University study shows up to five percent of adults exposed to gambling will likely develop into pathological gamblers (more than eight percent for college and high school students).

Reader's Digest (June, 1994) chronicles how the town of Deadwood, South Dakota has suffered from skyrocketing crime and bankrupted families since the town turned to gambling as an economic cure-all.

U.S. News & World Report devoted a full cover-story ("How Casinos Empty Your Wallet" - March 14, 1994) to the devilments of America's "gambling fever."

My files hold many stories on the abuses and shortcomings of the California lottery.

This waning century began in the shadow of the fearsome Marxist motto, "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need" (an ideal apparently incompatible with the human heart).

It seems we may begin the millennium's new century under the credo, "The very few benefiting at the expense of the many, and the many acquiescing in hopes of becoming one of the few" (an ideal repugnant to this human's heart).

Are our aspiring hearts to be doomed by our grabbing hands? It's a bet I'd be happy to lose.