Casino Gambling Would Be Bad for the Catskills

The tranquility, fresh air and spiritual rejuvenation that thousands of Jews enjoy every summer in the Catskills are now in jeopardy.

That’s because on Saturday the New York State Senate and Assembly voted to allow voters to decide on whether casinos should be allowed to operate in the Catskills. With the state senate and assembly, the governor — not to mention the casino industry — supportive of the measure along with casino operators, there’s a good chance that the Catskills will sprout casinos soon.

Looking for more ways to bridge New York state’s yawning budget deficit, the governor and the legislature view upstate gambling as a cash cow that will suck in more revenue for the state. The state’s shortfall has widened far more than projections due to the billions of dollars of damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy. The reasoning for building casinos is this: Why have Atlantic City suction away tax revenues from New York? Furthermore, New York’s elected officials hope that jumping on the legalized gambling bandwagon will generate much-needed jobs to combat unemployment.

But legalized gambling provides nothing more than a quick economic sugar rush that provides short-term benefits but in the long term neither increases tax revenue nor jobs. Legalized gambling, studies have shown, for the most part, is a shell game transferring money from one part of the economy to another. In a 2002 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research Institute, researcher Melissa Schettini Kearney found that the amount spent on legalized gambling matched a decline in consumer spending on other goods and services. For example, California’s state grocer association found consumer spending on groceries dropped seven percent after the state instituted a lottery. In other words, legalized gambling doesn’t create wealth, but merely shifts it.

Neither are more jobs in the cards when legalized gambling comes to town with all its cheap tinsel and glitz, bringing inappropriate behavior in its wake. Witness Atlantic City, which, according the Bureau of Labor statistics, has a staggering 13.3 unemployment rate, 5.8 percent higher than the national average, and 4.5 percent higher than the rest of New Jersey. Atlantic City’s unemployment towers over Sullivan County’s 9.4 percent rate, the area the governor is eyeing for the new casinos.

And for those believing they will strike gold by raising their income, benefiting from the good jobs brought in by casinos, think again. Legalized gambling is a form of fool’s gold. Casino jobs are low-paying and have barely any positive impact on a region’s median income. Atlantic City’s median income has gone up by a mere $800 in real dollars during the past 33 years.

The governor and legislature shouldn’t be surprised if the state’s coffers aren’t replenished with gambling revenue. Numerous states have had high expectations for higher tax revenue only to be disappointed at the actual trickle of taxes coming in from casinos. New Jersey found that after legalizing gambling in Atlantic City, revenue from other gambling sources dried up. Race Track betting, once accounting for 80 percent of New Jersey’s tax revenue, has shriveled down to two percent. Similarly, Oklahoma saw its projection of $150 million in casino revenue slashed to less than half to $70 million.

The governor should ask himself this: “Who does the gambling?” And he will find the answer disturbing. As studies have shown, a considerable portion of those who gamble are the poor, less educated and the elderly, those who can least afford to lose on games of chance. Making the poor poorer will only deepen New York’s fiscal problems as New York spends billions on entitlements for the poor annually. Gambling, in effect, becomes a tax on the poor.

Gambling has shown itself to have all the destructive addictive and abusive power of alcohol and illegal substances. It tears apart families, increases bankruptcies, and precipitates criminal activity. Compulsive gamblers, estimated to be at six to nine million nationwide, can’t feed their families, and they lose their houses and cars. Shortly after South Dakota adopted legalized gambling, personal bankruptcies soared, mostly due to gambling. Ironically, New York State itself spends millions a year on funding the New York Council on Public Gambling, an agency that treats compulsive gamblers.

The Catskills would suffer greatly as bungalow colonies will become ghost towns when Jews, scared away by the crumbling of social mores, will begin staying away to protect their families. If the governor wants to bolster the state’s revenues, there are numerous ways to do so without destroying the pristine nature of the Catskills. Instead of harming the climate of the Catskills, by ripping the pastoral canvas of freedom to roam the expanses of grass, partake of unpolluted fresh air, and bask in unclouded sunshine provided by the bungalow colonies, which truly provide steady employment for a good third of the year, and in many colonies for the whole year, for the native population. The governor would do better at improving the climate for more business opportunities as more and more families are opting to live upstate.

New York State is rated as one of the worst states in the nation for businesses. Educate the workforce, lower taxes, limit frivolous law suits — those initiatives would revive business in the state. Relying on luck is a gamble New York cannot afford.