, Salem, MA


February 5, 2014

Watson: Casinos shape and reflect our culture

This is the fourth and last column in a series about casinos and gambling and their negative effects on society and the economy.

The previous columns focused mainly on why the economic benefits of casinos fade over time; how casinos hurt surrounding businesses; what consequences problem-gambling brings to individuals, families, and society; and how the modern, computer-designed slot machine can easily become addictive to the player. This column will consider the more subtle role of casinos in shaping the kind of society we have.

One of the gradual, insidious effects of the proliferation of casinos and slots parlors is the growing reinforcement of the idea that luck or fate or get-rich-quick schemes offer a legitimate alternative to work and diligence.

For 30 years or so, there has been developing a cultural change that has transformed the conception of gambling from a semi-shady, loser’s proposition to a respectable moneymaking possibility.

State lotteries, introduced decades ago, helped to begin that conceptual shift. Aided by state budgets that underwrote advertising campaigns for the growing number of lottery games, ordinary citizens — many of whom had never gambled before — were lured into buying tickets. As the game types multiplied, and the purchase denominations expanded to accommodate one’s every mood or degree of flushness, more and more people wagered. Lotteries exist in 46 states today.

Incredibly, the state continues to promote this gambling as a way to improve one’s prospects in life. Whether it’s Keno, Powerball, Mass Cash, Megabucks, Mega Millions, Lucky for Life, or any one of 92 different scratch tickets, there are instant, hourly, daily, and weekly ways to gamble. And in Massachusetts alone, there are an estimated 1.2 million reasonably regular gamblers. Many of them, and plenty of new ones, will patronize the new casinos.

Now, there are some gamblers for whom wagering is strictly entertainment. They can afford their losses, and sometimes they gamble for a lark. But many lottery players — and you can see them grimly putting their dollars on the counter at any local convenience store — have a genuine financial need to win. And for a host of reasons, including the difficulties around living wages and unemployment, many people view gambling as an actual, possible avenue to a better life.

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