Gaming good for tribes, bad for problem gamblers

DAVIS — Is tribal gaming a boon for tribes that has done more for Indians that most government programs ever have? Or is it blight that leads to gambling addiction and other serious problems?

The answer could be yes–to both questions. That appeared to be conclusion of one of the more controversial sessions at the Economic and Social Impact of Indian Gaming in the U.S. conference held at the University of California at Davis.

Katherine Spilde Contreras, the managing director for the Center for California Native Nation at UC Riverside, presented research suggesting that gaming has been extremely helpful to both gaming and non-gaming tribes. Contreras is a former researcher at Harvard University.

“Gaming has emerged as a de facto government program,” Contreras said.

Contreras said she is often asked if the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) is working. She said that she replies “For whom?” For gaming tribes, she said, “everything you want to go up goes up,” including income, employment and educational attainment.

As proof, she detailed a 2000 Harvard study that compared data from the 1990 and 2000 Censuses. Real per capita income went up 36 percent for gaming tribes and 21 percent for non-gaming tribes, compared to 11 percent for the U.S. as whole–something she attributes largely to the advent of gaming in several states across the country. The poverty rate fell 11.8 percent for gaming tribes and 6.9 percent for non-gaming tribes, while remaining essentially flat across the general population.

Even though tribal gaming had barely gotten started in California in 2000, our state’s Indians posted even more impressive gains. California gaming tribes posted a gain in per capita income of over 50 percent over 10 years.

As an example of the economic success gaming has brought to some California tribes, she cited the San Pasqual tribe near Escondido. In 2003, 90 percent of their reservation burned down. Yet gaming has brought them enough resources that they were able to open up their casino as a shelter for firefighters during the recent Southern California wildfires.

Newspaper reports also show the tribe has been picketed by disgruntled members and former members, and engaged in an ongoing dispute with the state over their compact.

However, Contreras warned against the growing stereotype of rich Indians. In 1990, she said, Indians’ per capita income was one third of the U.S. average, college attainment was half as high, and unemployment was three times as high. Even by 2000, gaming Indians had a poverty rate of 26.1 percent, while non-gaming Indians had a rate of 29.7 percent, compared to a rate of only 9.2 percent for the general population. At current rates, she said, it would still take another half century for Indians to catch up to the rest of the country.

“That comes as a shock to people who drive by a casino and think, ‘Everything’s great, it may even be better than where I live,” Contreras said.

She also noted the money that California gaming tribes distribute. This included $101 million annually to non-gaming tribes, and $3 million to the state Office of Problem Gambling.

Just how prevalent is problem gambling? That is a subject Dean Gerstein’s has studied extensively as vice provost and director of research at Claremont Graduate University and in his former role at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

His conclusion? The gamblers themselves have often just “been assumed,” he said, and not really taken into consideration in the cost/benefit analysis of casinos.

Overall, there is for more gambling nationwide than there used to be. Legal gambling nationwide was only a $1 billion a year business as recently as the 1970s, Gerstein said. It’s now approximately a $100 billion a year business. Back then, he said, about two-thirds of adult citizens participated in gaming in a given year–a group that includes both hardcore gamers and occasional lottery ticket buyers. These days, he said, over 85 percent of people participate in some form of legal gambling in a given year.

Indian gaming is a huge and growing part of that business. During the morning session, National Indian Gaming Commission chairman Phil Hogen said that tribal gaming revenues hit $25 billion last year, up from only $6.3 billion in 1996.

Up to a third of this money is spent by a “very small percentage” of gamblers. There are now more three million “problem” gamblers and two million “pathological” gamblers in this country, he said. These classifications are “recognized mental disorders,” he noted.

“Relative to the cost of alcoholism or some other disorders, this is not a big number,” Gerstein said. “That’s a disappointing number to some who wanted overwhelming evidence.”

Though things aren’t too rosy if you’re one of them. These gamblers divorce at three times the rate of the population at large, go bankrupt at about five times to rate and are incarcerated more than 20 times as often–often for stealing to support their habit. They are more likely to be black, disabled or unemployed. Seventy percent are clinically depressed. Problem gambling costs the nation at least $6 billion a year in social services, lost productivity and other problems.

Despite the stereotype of retirees intently pulling away at slot machines, Gerstein said, those over 65 actually have significantly lower rates of problem gambling than younger people.

“Often, if you walk into a casino you’re impressed by the number of people who are over 65. You have to go back on a Friday night. It’s a very different demographic.”

While “problem gambling has existed far longer than Indian gaming,” as Contreras noted, Gerstein said that the location of Indian casinos could be a cause for concern. They tend to be concentrated on the edges of large urban areas–providing a constant temptation to those with gambling problems.

“The perfect place for a casino is in the middle of a desert,” Gerstein said. “Importing and exporting consumers is the perfect model. That’s the model Las Vegas and Atlantic City were built on. That’s not the model Indian casinos in California are built on.”

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