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Other People’s Money

As we move forward into the New Year, one thing that hasn’t changed along with our calendars is the fact that many municipal governments remain in a state of fiscal crisis.

Desperate for new ways of raising revenue, cities are increasingly looking at legalized gambling as an attractive option for shoring up municipal coffers. In the past several years, cities from Detroit to New Orleans have built casinos or other gambling facilities designed to increase state and local revenues and to create jobs. The Illinois state legislature is currently exploring the possibility of changing state law to accommodate Mayor Richard Daley’s desire to build a casino in downtown Chicago.

But while casinos may seem to offer the possibility of quick and easy money, extensive research shows that the billions of dollars that flow through casinos often come directly — and disproportionately — from the pockets of low-income people.

And rather than contribute to the economic development of a city, casinos further damage the economic prospects of those whom these facilities are ostensibly designed to help. While creating some new — but mostly low-paying — jobs, casinos drain enormous amounts of money from those who have the least money to spare.

Jewish law offers a virtually unambiguous condemnation of gambling. One talmudic opinion, in a discussion in Tractate Sanhedrin, categorizes gamblers as thieves and, on this basis, disqualifies gamblers from giving legal testimony. The ensuing discussion in the Talmud and in most later legal codes applies this classification only to those who gamble for a living and who do not take part in other “worldly pursuits.” Still, the overarching association in Jewish sources of gambling with theft remains strong.

Moses Maimonides, one of the most important medieval authorities, defines gambling as stealing, even if both parties agree to the rules of the game, as the winner “takes another’s money for free.” While both players know that the loser will lose his or her money, neither enters the game expecting to lose. In this way, gambling differs from sales transactions, in which one person expects to give up a certain amount of money and the other expects to surrender an object or service. A contemporary authority, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, has even extended the prohibition against gambling to participation in state-run lotteries. The essential problem of gambling, according to these thinkers, lies in its violation of the basic principle of all rabbinic commercial law — that the terms of the sale must be clear both to the buyer and to the seller.

The equation of gambling with stealing reflects the contemporary reality of casinos, in which those who gamble the most are often those least able to afford monetary losses, and in which the conditions are such that the house, as a rule, comes out ahead. Low-income people are lured into believing that they will win money, or at least break even, but more often than not end up losing significant sums of money. Furthermore, the placement of casinos or advertisements for casinos in low-income neighborhoods violates the biblical precept lifnei iver lo titen michshol — “do not place a stumbling block before the blind,” generally interpreted as a prohibition on tempting a person to do something that she or he knows to be wrong. The addictive nature of gambling makes the placement of casinos among those most in need of money akin to offering drugs or alcohol to someone in recovery.

The recent experience of cities such as Detroit demonstrates that casinos can have deleterious effects not only on economic health, but also on the mental health and social fabric of city residents. In the late 1990s, Michigan voters approved a ballot proposal by a slim majority authorizing the building of three casinos in Detroit. Supporters of the casinos promised the developments would boost the local economy by bringing visitors into the city.

The record is murky, at best.

According to a 1998 study on gambling in Detroit by Robin Widgery of the Social Systems Research Institute, casinos are the most “popular” form of gambling in Detroit, besting both the lottery and bingo. Seven percent of respondents reported that gambling had had a negative effect on their own family life, and one-third of respondents reported knowing a compulsive gambler. Among low-income groups, the number of people who reported knowing a compulsive gambler was almost double that of respondents in higher income groups. When asked whether they personally knew of problems caused by gambling, respondents mentioned bankruptcy (18%), family violence (16%), theft/robbery (15%), divorce (15%), alcoholism (13%), violent crime (10%), and suicide (7%).

Moreover, the impact on low-income, single-mother-headed and black households was disastrous: 38% of single mothers reported having gambled in a casino in the past twelve months. As a proportion of total household income, low-income families lost approximately 2.4 times more money gambling in casinos than did higher-income families. On average, blacks lost 2.5 times more money than whites.

The lesson from Detroit for Chicago and other cities is that casinos take money from low-income and minority groups. Though tempting, casinos represent a dangerous approach to economic development. Too often, the organized Jewish community is silent on the question of casinos, either out of a desire to avoid conflict with pro-gambling officials or out of a fear of alienating donors who have a stake in the industry. We in the Jewish community should be in the forefront in preventing our cities from succumbing to the temptations of legalized gambling — our tradition demands it.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the director of outreach and education for the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. Noah Leavitt is the council’s director of advocacy and policy.

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