Just before I moved out of Lansing, Michigan, the city was attempting to sell land downtown to an Native American tribe in order for them to build a new casino. The responses to the proposal were predictable. The local government and primarily republican constituent base thought it a potential boon for the city – a way for a community that had lost so much in the automotive downturn to grab a new source of income and create new jobs. Those on the liberal side of the fence, of course, did not see it that way. Many saw it as a guaranteed future blight that would attract seedy characters, increase gambling problems in the area and act as a negative income redistribution mechanism, as those who can most ill afford to lose money are typically the most likely to frequent such establishments.
Besides facing opposition within the city limits, the proposal is also meeting resistance from others around the state. Roughly 25 casinos are currently operating in the Mitten state, though the closest to its capital is nearly an hour away. In short, the owners of the other casinos – mostly other Native American tribes – don’t want to lose business to a new venture.
And according to recent research from the University of Iowa, they should be worried.
Iowa legalized riverboat casinos in 1990 and had seven such establishments by 1994. As one would think, those new builds led to an increase in gambling as well as in problematic gambling in the state’s population. A survey conducted in 1995 found that severe gambling disorders rose from 0.1 percent to 1.9 percent since 1989, while moderate problematic gambling rose from 1.6 percent to 3.5 percent. Since that time, land-based casinos have also been legalized in the Hawkeye state, and the number of casinos has risen to 21.
But the number of gamblers hasn’t risen with them.
A recent study called up 356 Iowans aged 18 and above and asked them about their gambling habits. The results found that disordered gambling had actually dropped as a whole since 1995, coming down from 5.4 percent to 3.6 percent. What’s more, seeing as how every state bordering Iowa also has either riverboat casinos or Indian-owned casinos, it is not likely that their residents are picking up the slack.
So all in all, increasing the number of casinos does not mean that there will be an increase in gamblers. It’s sort of like a four-year-old with a new toy. At first they want to play with it all the time. But after a while, the novelty wears off and it’s left behind.
There are some rather large caveats in the study, however. First of all, the sampling size is tiny. Only 356 people out of a total population of 3,000,000 were surveyed. And while randomized, the study did not intentionally seek out a representative cross section of the population and was piggy-backing on calls already being made. By contrast, the 1995 study was conducted for the sole purpose of finding the prevalence of gambling in Iowa, was an accurate representation of the population as a whole, and got five times as many participants.
While the results are intriguing and good news for those worried about their communities falling into gambling addictions, it really doesn’t carry all that much weight.
The study, “Prevalence of problem gambling in Iowa: Revisiting Shaffer’s adaptation hypothesis,” was published in the Annals of Clinical Psychiatry by Donald Black, a psychiatry professor at the University of Iowa.