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The Podium

The house always wins

The train has left the station in the long-debated deal for a Boston-area casino. But while major players negotiate, we ask them and the public to consider the true cost of a gaming facility close to home.

Many of us have heard the stories or remember the images of a parent outside the dog or horse track tearing up losing tickets that mean no money for rent, groceries and other needs, losing tickets that often lead to crumbling families and homelessness.

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Add in the slick, high-powered casino marketing campaigns, the attractive lure of fine dining, entertainment and “everybody’s a winner” messaging, and more and more working poor and middle class families are lured to the gaming tables.

Research on casinos and low-income households is consistent: casinos do more harm than good. While they may create jobs in the short term, the economic impact of job creation for low-income families is far outweighed by the costs of increased spending on gambling-- and long-term increases in gambling addiction and related social problems.

• Casinos do create local jobs — but they are not necessarily good jobs. Most are part-time, low-skill jobs that do not pull households out of poverty. The median wage in the gambling industry hovers around $11 an hour. Higher-skill level jobs are often filled by out-of-area residents.

• Casino gambling has a highly regressive economic impact on households. Fewer low-income households than moderate-income households gamble at casinos; however, they spend proportionately more of their income. Living close to a casino significantly increases the risk of “problem or pathological” gambling

• Local casinos increase the amount that poor people gamble. When a casino moves into the local area, more low-income households gamble — and all of the low-income households that gamble spend more on gambling.

Much has been made about the benefits a casino will bring in the form of jobs and the host city’s cut of gambling profits. But too little has been said about how this “percentage” will be spent to benefit all citizens in a region closely connected to the casino site by easy access to mass transit.

If there must be a casino, now is the time to establish the rules for living with it.

While “host agreements” between communities and casinos may include financial allowances and mitigation interventions for adjacent neighborhoods, they are often vague about benefits for cities and towns in the surrounding area. These agreements need to:

• Include guaranteed, ongoing dollars for addiction treatment, job-training/education/ career development programs, youth initiatives, business development, improvements to neighborhoods in the wider geographical area and other programs to meet needs in low-income neighborhoods.

• Guarantee seats for community representatives on the casino-community host management board of directors.

• Include all those in the wide-ranging surrounding area in the vote for the casino. For example, the vote for an East Boston casino needs to be a city-wide vote, as was done in Everett. All members of the host city are impacted by a casino that is only a subway or bus ride away.

In too many instances, promises made beforehand have evaporated once a casino opens. The negative fall-out from a casino established two years ago near a middle-class New York neighborhood, was noted in the June 15 New York Times article “In Queens, a Casino Bet Gone Bad.” Two years after Resorts World Casino opened in South Ozone Park, adjacent to Aqueduct Racetrack, the nearby business area is depressed. Residents and business owners report on promises that have not materialized. What was sold as a boon to local business has instead affected businesses negatively.

The article reports that people are channeled into the casino and don’t leave, that pawn shops have sprung up in alarming numbers, that a once-vibrant street life has disappeared.

We can’t let this happen in Boston. Casino operators are smart when it comes to playing the odds, but Bostonians are pretty clever too. A casino agreement needs to include long-term commitments that are specific, that help all families and especially low-income residents. Then maybe someone other than the House can be a winner in a new Boston-area casino economy.

John J. Drew is president/CEO of Action for Boston Community Development.
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