Casinos for Inequality

The Institute for American Values is conducting a series of investigations called "Casino Land: America in an Age of Inequality." The goal is to understand the meaning and role of casinos in American life -- how they work and what they do, the values they embody and transmit, their connection to government, and most of all, their relationship to the rise of American inequality.

Why this focus? For most of our history, casinos were legal only in Nevada and (since 1977) Atlantic City. But starting in about 1990, as state governments in search of cash began searching for new revenue streams that did not involve raising taxes on the affluent, casinos began entering the mainstream of American society. They've spread rapidly. In both blue states and red states, from Mississippi to Massachusetts, casinos are now becoming a part of our social, political, and physical landscape, sponsored by the very state governments that only yesterday had outlawed them.

If you are in the upper third of American income distribution, chances are that you have rarely, if ever, set foot into one of these casinos - much less spent hours at a time putting your money into slot machines that have been rigged to make sure you lose. But if you are in the lower two-thirds, and if you live in one of the 23 states which now sponsor casinos, chances are good that you have done so. For this reason, the new casinos are directly contributing to social and economic inequality in America.

Still curious? I think you'll enjoy this short (3 minute) video from an interview I did recently with Professor Robert Frank, a very smart guy who teaches economics at Cornell University and writes a monthly "Economic View" column for the New York Times. It's a wonderful introduction to the political economy of casino gambling in America.

I also want to introduce you, via this short video interview, to my friend William Johnson, the former mayor of Rochester, New York, and a former professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Bill Johnson is a hero of mine, partly because of his role as a progressive leader in New York politics, and partly because he took on the casino interests, and won, in his home town of Rochester when he was serving as mayor. He's worth getting to know.

Want to read a couple of interesting reports? Our first "Casino Land" report, an overview, put out by 33 scholars and leaders, is Why Casinos Matter: Thirty-One Evidence-Based Propositions from the Health and Social Sciences. Our second report, written by yours truly, focuses on New York, where the issue is on the ballot in November, and is called New York's Promise: Why Sponsoring Casinos is a Regressive Policy Unworthy of a Great State.

And stay tuned. We are just getting warmed up on this issue.

Follow David Blankenhorn on Twitter and #Casinoland at the Institute for American Values on Twitter.