By Kevin Frazier
The only thing certain about legalizing sports betting in California is that it will create a lot of losers. State Sen. Bill Dodd and Assemblyman Adam Gray have introduced legislation that would give voters the chance to amend the state’s constitution to allow for sports betting at tribal casinos and racetracks. The revenue raised from such an amendment would go a long way toward correcting a budget deficit of more than $50 billion. But, for every dollar raised there will be a tremendous human cost that Californians must not ignore.
I know firsthand how all forms of addiction — from drugs to gambling — can destroy an individual’s sense dignity and erase a family’s sense of emotional and financial stability. At the roots of my family tree is a powerful addictive gene. At various branches, that gene has manifested itself through addictions to alcohol, drugs, and gambling. Each of those branches has struggled to stay healthy as the addiction to one vice or another subsumes all other activities.
Unfortunately, I’m not alone in knowing the costs of addiction – especially to gambling. As far back as 2006, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) estimated that one million Californians suffer from problem gambling. The CDPH recognized this was a “relatively high rate of gambling problems” and called for “strong public policies” to address the emerging public health issue.
That same survey noted several other troubling findings. For one, there’s “very little help available for problem gamblers and their families.” Those most likely to suffer with gambling issues — including African Americans, financially insecure individuals and differently abled individuals — already face barriers to reaching their full potential.
Legalizing sports betting would only create more hurdles for vulnerable communities and individuals. Consider the correlates of problem gambling: greater rates of substance abuse, depression, and mental and physical impairment; significantly higher likelihood of encountering the criminal justice system; greater incidences of domestic abuse; and higher chance of indebtedness.
There’s no denying that the state is in desperate need of funds. Gov. Newsom and state legislators are currently weighing impossible decisions. They won’t be able to fulfill many of their progressive goals such as providing health care for more residents, expanding access to early childhood education, and addressing the state’s aging infrastructure. So, it comes as no surprise that many officials have rationalized their support for sports gambling. By way of example, officials looking to excuse their support for a blatantly regressive policy may lean heavily on arguments such as the fact that problem gambling exists on a spectrum, so reports of problematic behavior are likely inflated. Alternatively, they may point out that sports gambling may receive more public support than alternative revenue proposals, such as a higher sales tax.
These excuses can and must be dismissed. The government should not be in the business of facilitating vices in the name of generating income. The black mark on the record of every official who supports this legislation is not worth the moral costs of getting out of the financial red. Our legislators can and must be more creative when it comes to guiding the state through these difficult times. Rather than double down on sources of revenue that we know are regressive, state officials should dare to think of new approaches to righting the state’s budget while also increasing the odds of Californians attaining the American Dream. Facilitating increased gambling will only lead to nightmares for thousands of families and individuals put through the inevitable fate of being continually unlucky.
Kevin Frazier is a law school student at UC Berkeley and a Richmond District resident.