Gambling proponents are back at their efforts to legalize gambling by promising legislators and voters that it will be an easy way to fix budget shortfalls. They insist that gambling will increase the popularity of Hawaii as a tourist destination and keep locals from traveling to Las Vegas, all the while raking in millions from taxes and fees levied on a harmless form of entertainment. The arguments supporting gambling focus heavily on the promised financial gain possible from gambling but ignore the impact on the lives of our low-income families who will bear a disproportionate amount of the harm.

Gambling lobbyists have explicitly acknowledged that casinos will attract locals who would otherwise spend their money in Las Vegas. Local casinos will not only provide a substitute for gambling in Vegas. The convenience will also enable current gamblers to spend more while providing easy access to many, including the poor, to begin gambling for the first time.

Studies have shown that living near a casino significantly increases the risk of problem or pathological gambling, particularly for those in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Residing within ten miles of a casino results in a whopping 90% increase in the odds of being a problem gambler. The geographical effects of poverty on gambling rates are alarming: those living in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods have twelve times the rate of problem gambling as residents of the most privileged areas.

Studies have also shown that the disproportionate impact of gambling on the poor begins with the source of gambling revenues. The revenue-creating taxes on gambling, similar to excise taxes on cigarettes or alcohol, form a heavily regressive tax on low-income families. Poor people are more likely to spend higher percentage of their income on gambling, resulting in a larger percent of their income going to gambling taxes as well. Such taxes are generally the most regressive forms of taxes, even higher than general excise taxes.

The devastating effects of problem and pathological gambling are widely recognized, and the poor are most at risk. Like other addictions, problem and pathological gambling have an impact that extends far beyond the gamblers themselves to their families and the community. Gambling lobbyists don’t mention the hidden costs of gambling; particularly the greater need for social services, public benefits and police protection. Multiple studies have shown that casinos increase bankruptcy rates in the local community as gambling losses devastate family finances. Individuals in substance abuse or psychiatric treatment are four to ten times as likely to be problem or pathological gamblers. The introduction of gambling into new areas has also been associated with significant increases in serious crimes. Low-income neighborhoods, already disproportionately affected by crime, will bear the brunt of the gambling’s many harms.

Gambling is not a choice that an individual makes in a vacuum—the choice itself can be heavily influenced by the individual’s vulnerability to the allure of easy fortune. This vulnerability can damage gamblers’ families, children and their community. While it is difficult to measure the exact extent of injury to poor families, permitting gambling will only worsening the issues they already facing. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission in 1999 found that the litany of gambling-related harms is tragically long: job loss, substance abuse, crime, divorce, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, job loss, homelessness. These tragedies can worsen the situation of already-poor families and drive others into poverty.

Introducing gambling as a gimmicky budget solution is dangerously shortsighted. Raising concerns about gambling’s impact on people in poverty are not emotionally-driven attacks, but based on empirical evidence of harm to individuals and communities. With the legalization of gambling, Hawaii will be stumbling down an irreversible path. A state can’t just experiment with gambling–if gambling is permitted, it will be here to stay and likely expand any time the state is looking for easy money. A thorough examination of the impacts of gambling will reveal that the profound harms to our community, particularly low-income families, will be far greater than the financial benefits. Hawaii cannot afford to risk its spirit of aloha for a few quick dollars at the expense of the poor.

Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice has recently completed a report entitled “Gambling with Paradise: Why Casinos and Lotteries are Bad Bets for Hawaii.” You can read it here:

About the author: Victor Geminiani is the Executive Director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. He has been practicing public interest law since his graduation from law school in 1969. He has previously served as Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Legal Services of Northern California and Western Massachusetts Legal Services.