Crapping Out in New York: A Better Way

The questions just keep coming.

Governor Cuomo in his 2013 State of the State highlighted the need to, attract good jobs and restore NY as the progressive capital of the nation. And he made the point that, more than low-paid workers, employers need highly skilled labor. If you're struggling to keep a roof over your family's head and put food on the table, any job is better than no job. But hard times tend to get harder, without a path to a better way. So is changing the state's constitution to permit commercial casinos likely to provide that better way? If it isn't, is there an alternative that could?

It helps to begin by also asking whether those employers he infers have less need for low-paid workers include those in the casino gambling industry, and whether his promotion of that industry is consistent with good paying jobs. Employment opportunities that don't pay a living wage increase the financial burden on all taxpayers to fund social services such as welfare and food stamps.

Building the Destination Resort Casinos that Mr. Cuomo is proposing to help the upstate economy would employ people in temporary construction and permanent service positions. But many, perhaps most, of them wouldn't be specific to the gambling operation. Construction workers, outside grounds keepers, building maintenance support, hotel workers, and many others, would provide important yet general services. Senator Bonacic rightly points to societal problems arising from gambling and unemployment. He's also correct to point out most money spent in Las Vegas is spent on things other than casino gambling. So when you consider that Destination Resorts, sans casinos, can be built, why do we need the casinos?

The short answer is, it isn't because of the jobs. The slightly longer answer is, taxpayers don't need casinos, but some private investors -- and politicians in receipt of their largesse -- want them. That's because casinos offer a level of certainty afforded to no other business in NYS -- the guarantee that comes from the mathematical certainty of house odds.

Back to a better way ...

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies employment positions providing services such as: casino slot supervisors, gaming managers, table game dealers, and other gaming service workers, as Gaming Services Occupations. According to the BLS's Occupational Outlook Handbook, the minimum educational requirement for Gaming Services Occupations is a high school diploma or equivalent, and the median wage, adjusted to 2012 dollars, paid to workers providing those services was about $21,300, nationally. Closer to home, BLS reports the median wages in 2012 paid in NYS to: gaming dealers, gaming and sports book writers and runners, gaming change persons and booth cashiers, and gaming cage workers, as $25,880, $28,060, $24,680, and $23,930 respectively.

The Living Wage Calculator of Dr. Amy K. Glasmeier, Department Head of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, can be used to get a better sense of how likely it is people employed providing the above services might still need to rely on public assistance. According to Dr. Glasmeier's calculator, the living wage in NYS in 2012 was $23,920 for an individual and $44,158 for a family of four. So while Gaming Services Occupations in NYS paid a living wage to many individuals, the likelihood it did so to bread-winners of a family of four was much lower.

In contrast, though BLS reports similar entry level education requirements for positions it classifies as Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, the median 2012 wage paid in NYS to workers in this group was $38,120.

What do Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors have to do with the upcoming referendum on casinos? Plenty, or at least they should. NYS's more than half million adult problem and pathological gamblers already ring up a $3.7 billion annual tab, much of it paid for by the taxpaying public. And with casinos deriving up to half their gambling revenue from people unable to control their compulsion to gamble, it isn't rational for the industry -- nor NYS, while it promotes it -- to take meaningful steps to address the problem.

If Mr. Cuomo is serious about wanting to restore NY as the progressive capital of the nation, and assist upstate economies, he can build his Destination Resorts without casinos. And he should invest seriously in gambling addiction recovery and prevention. Doing so would create jobs more likely to pay a living wage and further benefit taxpayers by helping to reduce the extent and cost of NYS's gambling problem. Money from recent agreements arrived at between NYS and the Seneca, St. Regis Mohawk, and Oneida casino tribes could be used to fund such an effort, so conceivably it wouldn't cost taxpayers a dime. Those tribal dollars haven't been part of the state budget funding stream for years.

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