Over the years, Nebraska has decided against allowing casino gambling in the Good Life—and for good reason. Gambling can ruin families, hurt communities, and pile on new costs to the state. By keeping Nebraska casino-free, our state has minimized the social harms associated with problem gambling. In fact, research shows that Nebraska ranks as the fourth-least gambling-addicted state in America.
It’s not just about the rankings. There’s a real human cost to casinos. When thinking about casino gambling, it’s important to remember that the house always wins. The allure of hitting the jackpot overshadows the more common reality of players going broke chasing the dream of winning it all. In 2017, Americans lost $107 billion from all forms of legalized gambling.
These losses are a reflection of one of the sad realities of gambling: It can be a habit-forming and addictive activity. While some gamblers harmlessly lose a little cash, others have a harder time knowing when to stop. Compulsive gamblers get a “high” from gambling that rewires the neural circuitry of the brain much like an addictive drug. As with drug abuse, gambling addiction leads to anti-social and self-destructive behaviors.
Even without casinos, Nebraska already experiences some of the negative impacts from gambling on our communities. The Nebraska Commission on Problem Gambling offers counseling to individuals with gambling disorders and their families through its Gamblers Assistance Program (GAP). From July 1, 2018 to April 30, 2020, GAP provided long-term counseling to 280 Nebraskans. Surveys of these individuals reveal the financial distress and mental health challenges common to problem gamblers. Thirty percent of participants said they had considered suicide in the past year. For those who reported gambling debts, the average amount owed was over $28,000. This nearly equaled the group’s median annual income. Half of those receiving counseling services earned less than $30,000 a year.
Financial crimes aren’t the only negative effects of problem gambling. It shatters relationships and destroys families. Time and money spent gambling can wreck a marriage or lead to child neglect. The financial pressure of gambling losses can also motivate domestic violence or child abuse. Additionally, the stress of gambling debt may trigger anxiety, depression, and behavioral health disorders.
Problem gamblers also hurt our communities when they commit crimes like embezzlement, forgery, and theft to finance their addiction. For example, in 2012 a Nebraska State Senator pled guilty to illegally spending campaign funds at casinos in Kansas. In 2016 a Lincoln pharmacist was sentenced to nine years in prison after defrauding Nebraska’s Medicaid program of $14.4 million. He squandered the money playing craps and blackjack at casinos in Council Bluffs. Also in 2016, a bookkeeper at an Omaha travel agency was arrested for stealing $1.2 million from her employer to cover gambling losses incurred at Iowa casinos.
Many try to argue that we need casino gambling because they say that it would be a financial windfall to the State with no strings attached. This kind of thinking is short-sighted. For every $1 a community gains from casino gambling, it pays $3 in social costs. These costs go toward regulating the casino industry and dealing with the many negative side effects of problem gambling, such as child abuse, spousal abuse, crime, family breakdown, and bankruptcy. Legalizing casinos to improve the state’s budget situation makes about as much financial sense as playing the slots to get rich.
In light of the social costs, it’s also unfair to argue that governments should allow casino gambling in order to generate tax revenues. Low-income Americans disproportionately struggle with problem gambling, and the net outcome of casino gambling is to transfer money from the poor to the rich. The Open Door Mission in Omaha serves many people who are impacted by gambling addictions. In self-disclosed surveys of the homeless people they serve, they have studied the impact of casino gambling. Before casinos came to Council Bluffs, about nine percent of the homeless people they serve came to them due to gambling. After the casinos, about 36 percent of the homeless people they serve disclose that they are experiencing homelessness due to gambling addictions.
As you can see, the harms of gambling are very real. We can all do something about it. By detecting warning signs of problem gambling, Nebraskans can seek help before a gambling disorder spirals out of control. According to GAP, these signs include:
- Someone betting more than they can afford to lose
- Gambling more to win back money lost
- Borrowing money or selling something to gamble
- Experiencing health or financial problems associated with gambling
- Feeling guilty about gambling
- Needing to bet ever-increasing amounts of money to feel the same level of excitement
If you—or someone you love—show signs of having a gambling disorder, please call the State’s 24-hour problem gambling helpline at 1-833-238-6837. There’s no charge to get help, and all calls are confidential. You can also go to the Commission on Problem Gambling’s website at problemgambling.nebraska.gov to learn more about the free counseling services available through the Nebraska Gamblers Assistance Program.
*Republished with permission. Article first appeared on the Office of Governor Pete Ricketts official website on August 10, 2020.