No to Gambling on Our Future

Gambling usually begins with a relatively small amount of money, and sometimes one even manages to win part of it back. But like an inescapable trap of quicksand, it rapidly drags its prey into a vicious cycle of losing money and desperately trying to gain it back by repeating the same fatal error. First the gambler loses his earnings, leaving him without money for basic expenses. He then recklessly spends all his hard-earned savings. From there he sinks into heavy debt, all the while fooling himself into thinking that on his next try he will strike it big and recoup all his losses.

Well-meaning but misguided friends and relatives bail him out again and again, but it is all for naught as he uses every cent to feed his ever-worsening addiction. Along the way, this pattern of self-destruction also shatters the lives of his spouse, children, parents and siblings. When gambling is readily available in the immediate vicinity, it wreaks havoc on the moral fabric of an entire community.

“Compulsive gambling is a highly destructive addiction,” says Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D., a noted psychiatrist who is a world-renowned expert on addictions.

“The person will do anything to feed his addiction, stealing and embezzling or committing credit-card fraud. He becomes a compulsive liar. Although he may love his family, he will take the bread from their mouths and sell the roof over their heads. He has no control.”

As states ramp up their casino construction, they are finding that they have to spend more on treating gambling addiction. Since 2011, when Massachusetts opened its casinos, it has had to double its spending on gambling addiction treatment centers. More casinos will only generate more compulsive gamblers.

For cash-strapped local and state governments, casinos often seem to be a very enticing method to bring in urgently needed revenue, and there are many who urge that the economic benefits should trump the negative ramifications of local gambling centers.

In reality, studies have shown that casinos have proven to almost always fall short on the promise of jobs growth and revenue. The construction of casinos will provide relatively high-paying jobs while they are being built, but once they are operating, those jobs will vanish. The jobs that do remain will be to fill roles in the casinos themselves. Those jobs are notoriously low paying, barely above minimum wage and not the kind to usher prosperity into a community.

In a 2002 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researcher Melissa Schettini Kearney calculated that the amount spent on legalized gambling matched a decline in consumer spending on other goods and services. For example, the California’s Grocers Association found that 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 elsewhere. The odds are that the net gain to the state will be zero. And sometimes the net gain to a state is even less than zero.

In Delaware, where casinos experienced a sharp decline in revenue, Gov. Jack Markell has had to dip into his state’s coffers to the tune of $8 million to prevent several casinos from laying off workers.

Ever since Atlantic City legalized gambling in 1978, the city’s poverty rate has actually risen from 23 to 29 percent. The city owns the dubious distinction of having one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation: 18 percent. Although the casinos themselves may be safe, outside them is anything but. Atlantic City has become a crime-ridden, urban blight disaster, with a crime rate rivaling some of the worst neighborhoods in New York City. In 2010, Governor Christie declared that Atlantic City was “dying,” proposing a state takeover of the gambling and entertainment district.

Neither do gamblers transform a community to a boom town. What studies have shown is that gamblers confine themselves to the environs of the casinos and spend little time or money outside. Atlantic City has lost much of the thriving retail business that existed before it became a gambling center. Outside the tinsel, glitz and oxygen-pumped rooms of Atlantic City are burned-out buildings, shuttered storefronts and homeless people sleeping in cardboard boxes.

We don’t doubt that Governor Andrew Cuomo and the members of the N.Y. State Legislature mean well with their proposal to build up to seven new casinos in New York State. As indicated in the language of the referendum that New Yorkers will get to vote on Tuesday, their intent is to promote job growth, increase aid to schools, and permit local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.

We respectfully disagree, however, with their conclusions.

According to one estimate, New York already has 600,000 compulsive gamblers who are ruining their lives and those of their families with the existing array of ways to gamble.

We can’t afford for this number to increase. As Dr. Twerski puts it: “Increasing places where people can ruin their lives is unconscionable.”

What is of particular concern to our community is the fact that one of the areas eyed for construction of one or more casinos is the Catskills region.

Once famed as the “Borscht Belt,” much of this area was abandoned and neglected when locals moved out and vacation resorts closed their doors. The Orthodox Jewish community has invested tens of millions of dollars in this region. In addition to the numerous summer camps and bungalow colonies, there are thriving year-round communities such as in South Fallsburg and Kiamesha Lake, all of which are a source of significant income and commerce for local villages and townships.

The reason they chose the Catskills is in order to be able to breathe physical and spiritual fresh air, for the pristine lakes and forests, for the family-friendly environment.  Jews stream to the Catskills to escape exactly the kind of atmosphere that casinos bring to a region, and if this referendum is passed, the effects of massive, local gambling may force Orthodox Jews to leave the Catskills in droves — which, in itself, will take a deep toll on the local economy.

Leading Rabbanim and askanim from across the spectrum of Orthodox Jewry have warned against the very real dangers posed by a casino in the Catskills and urge their followers to vote No to Proposition One on Tuesday.

We are confident that once this measure is defeated, the governor and the legislature will come up with more creative and less counterproductive means to increase state revenue.