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Expanded gambling: good or bad?

During election cycles, voters are regularly confronted by ballot initiative questions which raise serious moral questions. Sometimes the issues are cut and dry as with intrinsic evils like abortion, redefining marriage, racism, and treating the poor with neglect and abandon. Other times the issues are not so clear cut and require us to more thoroughly engage our intellect and analyze the morality and social costs/benefits of particular ballot initiative.

This election cycle, Catholics are facing the latter situation with three upcoming ballot items (Initiatives 429, 430, and 431) which would allow unlimited expanded gambling at any currently or future operated licensed racetrack in Nebraska. The purpose of this column is to analyze these initiatives based on Catholic social teaching.

Catholic social teaching recognizes that gambling can be a moral activity if certain conditions are met. When those conditions are not met, the act of gambling becomes immoral and harmful.

We will review these conditions—six in total—and analyze Initiatives 429, 430, and 431 in light of these conditions. In analyzing these expanding gambling initiatives the question is not whether any one given person could engage in moral gambling, but whether—on the whole—expanded gambling as proposed would be a morally good activity for the voters of Nebraska to adopt.

For gambling to be a moral activity, the following conditions are required: 1) the money or possessions being wagered must belong to the gambler and not needed to support one’s family; 2) those gambling must participate freely and without compulsion; 3) the gambling transaction be free of fraud; 4) some level of equality between the parties in the gambling transaction; 5) the motive for gambling should be one of pleasure rather than of gain; 6) the revenues derived from gambling must not be used to support any immoral or illegal activities. The failure of meeting one or more of these conditions raises serious questions about the moral good—and, therefore, moral and societal problems—of these expanded gambling proposals.

Perhaps the biggest concern with the expanded gambling initiatives is the effect it has on families. The research studies on expanded gambling show negative impacts on family life. Families with problem and addicted gamblers experience increased fraud and deceit, burdensome debt, loss of employment, domestic violence, child neglect and abuse, among other pressing concerns. Given that Initiatives 429, 430, and 431 would radically expand gambling to allow for online gambling and sports gambling (which could be done from the leisure of one’s mobile device), there are real concerns about the ease in which gambling could infiltrate the home (through mobile devices) and, thereby, also have an detrimental effect on children and teenagers.

It is also concerning that casino gambling and gaming devices (especially those used through mobile devices) are inherently structured to exploit the human psyche and produce addiction. The research reveals that the casino industry thrives off addiction and preys on poor and middle-class families and the elderly.

In doing so, casinos can extract the majority of their profits from these populations and addicted gamblers. Rather than achieving “rags to riches” and fulfilling illusory promises of wealth sold by the industry, the poor and vulnerable are exploited in a scenario where “the house always wins.”

The propensity of the casino industry to collect its profits from problem and addicted gamblers has a further effect of putting poor and vulnerable populations in a situation where they experience financial instability. Rather than a life of jackpots and payouts, the more typical experience is reliance on payday loans that charge exorbitant interest rates, loss of paychecks and businesses, loan defaults, and bankruptcy.

To top off these harms, the research also demonstrates that as casino gambling expands every major type of crimes (except murder) increases with it. Given that casinos tend to be hotspots and hubs for human sex trafficking, it is particularly concerning that expanded gambling could negatively offset the tremendous strides Nebraska has achieved to combat this modern form of slavery.

Proponents of expanded gambling rest their arguments on increased tax revenues, more jobs, and revitalization of communities. While it can be acknowledged that there might be some increased revenues and jobs, the question might be posed using the words of Christ: What does it profit a man? When you put these economic gains in the scales of justice against the social, financial, moral, and spiritual harms outlined above, is the state better off?

As the research demonstrates: the answer is no. For every $1 in revenue generated by casino gambling, there are $3 in social costs. In other words, any alleged short- or long-term economic benefits of gambling are far outweighed by the detrimental social costs expanded gambling would bring our communities.

This is why the Bishops, through the NCC, are urging Nebraskans to vote AGAINST Initiatives 429, 430, and 431. It doesn’t profit a man, woman, or child for the state to expand gambling. Instead, we’ll be left gambling away the Good Life!

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