The slots trap

February 24, 2005|By Obie Patterson

ALTHOUGH A MAJOR portion of the black community in Prince George's County is well-educated and middle-income -- some even affluent -- the negative impact of slot machines on the community would be far-reaching. They could have a devastating, adverse effect in the areas in which they are placed.

Among the many potential drawbacks associated with slots, gambling addiction, increased poverty and escalated crime rates are the most detrimental. Placing slot machines in low- and middle-income communities only exacerbates the vulnerability of those who can least afford to indulge.

Unlike their affluent counterparts, low- and middle-income wage earners often lack the disposable income necessary to routinely play slots without experiencing adverse financial repercussions. Because most of their available income is needed to meet basic living expenses, diverting these resources to gambling can have catastrophic results on these individuals.

Likewise, the economic impact on African-Americans in a gambling environment could be more severe, particularly because that population is not on a level playing field with regard to financial stability. Because all low-income families lack the ability to rebound quickly, if at all, from financial setbacks and consistent monetary losses from playing slot machines, regardless of the amount, the results could be devastating.

Moreover, the side effects of such financial losses can translate into more households sinking into poverty and increased demands for social service programs and government assistance from ever-shrinking resources.

While playing slot machines is a matter of personal choice, like other forms of gambling, slots offer false hope as a quick and easy way to make money. The allure of winning rather than working one's way to wealth would appeal to most people, but that fantasy has an even stronger pull on individuals who have limited opportunities for improving their financial status. By taunting the indulgence and appearing to offer a quick fix for one's gloomy financial situation, slots act as a deterrent for individuals to work, and foster gambling addiction.

The social, psychological, economic and physical effects of gambling addiction on individuals may prove severe and result in more dysfunctional families, higher frequencies of domestic violence and numerous other problems. Based on information from the Maryland Lottery, there may be an even greater chance that slots will increase gambling addictions among African-Americans.

Of the nearly $1.4 billion in total lottery sales in fiscal year 2004, about 40 percent came from overwhelmingly black communities, specifically Baltimore City and Prince George's County. Even more unsettling is that Baltimore and Prince George's County host 1,368 video lottery terminals (VLTs) -- one-third of all VLTs in Maryland.

These statistics paint a gloomy picture of the disproportionate placement of VLTs in the state. Although the basis for this disparity is unclear, it is apparent that the current placement of VLTs works to the detriment of the only two predominantly black districts in Maryland.

Clearly, access to gambling venues increases the chances that individuals will indulge, and it is reasonable to conclude that the communities where slots are placed risk having the highest concentration of compulsive gamblers and the largest proportion of families and individuals with gambling-related problems.

In addition to perpetuating gambling addictions, slots may also increase crime rates, especially among nonviolent drug offenders. Fully 90 percent of Maryland's nonviolent drug offenders are black, and risking the probability of increasing this population would be fiscally and socially irresponsible. Because so many drug offenders lack adequate job skills and effective drug treatment, the idea of having slot machines available seems an attractive survival tool for them.

While slots may provide harmless entertainment for some, expanding gambling in Maryland might prove to be a deadly cancer for others. Promoting slots while completely disregarding the potential crises they can trigger in our communities not only flies in the face of reason but also signifies a willingness to prey upon the human weakness for gambling.

Is there a willingness among some lawmakers to sacrifice one family-oriented community for another? If so, which community is worth abandoning?

As the debate on whether slots should be allowed in our state continues, extensive, earnest thought and critical discussions regarding the placement of slot machines are crucial. Whatever choices we make, we must never lose focus on the families and children that may be affected by our decisions, taking every possible measure to ensure that slots, if approved, are strategically placed and not disproportionately located in low-income and predominantly black communities.

Obie Patterson, a Democrat, represents Prince George's County in the Maryland House of Delegates.

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