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PolitiFact: Largest number of gamblers aren't "from the poorest segments of the population

As lawmakers wrestle with a proposal to build megaresort casinos in South Florida, some critics of the idea are fighting back by arguing that gambling is morally wrong because it exploits the poor.

The Florida Family Policy Council, an Orlando-based conservative Christian organization, argued on its blog recently that gambling was socially harmful "because the largest numbers of gamblers comes from the poorest segments of the population."

To check the claim, PolitiFact Florida reviewed about six studies that included information about gambling and income, as well as several news articles or websites.

We also interviewed nearly a dozen academics who have studied gambling. Some of the sources came from John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council, while others came from professors, the gambling industry or gambling opponents.

In the end, we found this claim to be overreaching.

• • •

Not surprisingly, studies done under the direction of the casino industry found that the bulk of their visitors are middle or upper class. American Gaming Association's 2011 State of the States survey of casino entertainment states that compared to the general population, casino visitors are more likely to have incomes between $35,000 and $100,000.

Lottery studies show that the poorer Americans who play the lottery devote a higher percentage of their income to the games.

But low-income households aren't more likely to participate in the lottery, said Philip Cook, a Duke University professor who studied the issue.

"The percentage who participate in lottery play is not higher for low-income households," Cook told us. "But those who do play, play a lot."

Looking at all types of gambling, though, the most extensive research we found was from the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, a 1999 report done for the federal government that included a report by the National Opinion Research Center of nearly 3,000 gamblers and nongamblers.

"If you define gambling fairly broadly — placing a bet on a game of chance at least once in a lifetime, or once in the past year, or even once in the past month — then members of the poorest segment of the population are, in general, less likely to gamble than members of the middle segments," said Dean Gerstein, a vice provost and professor at Claremont Graduate University who worked on the report.

"By any reasonable definition, the largest numbers of gamblers are clearly not poor," he wrote in an email to PolitiFact.

However, when poor people gamble, a larger proportion have serious problems related to their gambling than wealthier people, Gerstein said. "In general, gambling very heavily doesn't do nearly as much damage to rich people as it does to poor people — rich people can afford to throw away a lot more money on gambling without getting into hot water."

Many of our experts said the council's claim was too vague — research about gambling and income typically specifies the type of gambling, the frequency and sometimes the location. The regular purchaser of lottery tickets at a store in inner-city Baltimore probably isn't the same as the occasional high roller at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

"This is a poorly worded and misleading statement," said David Just, an economics professor at Cornell University, who has studied poverty and lotteries.

"By no means does this group constitute the majority of those playing the lottery," Just added. "Those in poverty are just 16 percent of the U.S. population. They do not outspend the other 84 percent of the country. There is some evidence that a larger proportion of them play, but this is weak evidence and heavily disputed. It is widely believed they spend a higher portion of their income than wealthier individuals."

John Welte, a senior research scientist at the Research Institute on Addictions at Buffalo State University of New York who wrote about geographic factors and gambling in this article, told us that the council's claim was wrong.

"Gamblers are generally not more common in the poorest segments, although poorer gamblers tend to gamble more often," Welte said in an email. "What is true, and perhaps more relevant, is that problem gamblers are more prevalent in the poorest segments of society."

Our ruling

We sent our findings to Stemberger, and he asked us to consider two additional reports. One was a 1997 article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune about a study of state treatment programs for problem gamblers that found that poor problem gamblers had debts proportionally higher than more affluent gamblers.

But the article stated: "State officials said they couldn't conclude that compulsive gamblers are disproportionately poor. That's because state-funded programs may attract the poor more than affluent people who have insurance or other options for treatment."

Stemberger also pointed to studies about gambling in Wisconsin. This 1995 study of American Indian casinos found gamers have an average household income of between $20,000 and $30,000 a year. Fewer than 15 percent enjoy household incomes in excess of $60,000, while almost 30 percent have household incomes less than $20,000. But the study didn't state that the gamblers were disproportionately poor compared to the population near the casinos.

The council's blog stated "the largest numbers of gamblers comes from the poorest segments of the population." Most research about the demographics of gamblers includes the type of gambling, the frequency and sometimes location of gambling.

There is a lot of data to suggest that lottery sales outlets are concentrated in poor neighborhoods and that poor lottery ticket buyers end up spending a higher portion of their income. But that would not necessarily apply to the Las Vegas-style casinos that the Florida Legislature is now considering. We rate this claim Mostly False.

The statement

The largest number of gamblers are "from the poorest segments of the population."

John Stemberger, Florida Family Policy Council president, in comments on a website

The ruling

The research and experts agree — gamblers are generally not more common in the poorest segments, though poorer gamblers tend to gamble more often. We rate this claim Mostly False.

PolitiFact: Largest number of gamblers aren't "from the poorest segments of the population 11/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 26, 2011 10:52pm]
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