Increasing revenues through vice

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: gambling in Illinois. 

Forty years ago, Las Vegas was the only place where people could legally lose money at slot machines and poker tables. Today, some form of gambling is legal in nearly every state.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Illinois already allows slot machines and casino gambling. But this year lawmakers are placing a bet to make their state the gambling capital of the Midwest. 

A bill passed earlier this summer expands gambling and promises to give the state coffers a boost. But groups that work with gambling addicts warn the bill is likely to cause more trouble than lawmakers bargained for.

WORLD Radio intern John Vence has our story.

JOHN VENCE, INTERN: You don’t have to look hard to find a slot machine in Illinois. They’re in bowling alleys, gas stations, even Chinese restaurants. And with the passing of Senate Bill 690, locals and visitors will have more opportunities than ever to gamble.

The bill legalizes sports betting and authorizes the construction of a 4,000 seat megacasino in Chicago. It also doubles the number of individual places to sit and gamble to almost 80,000 statewide. That’s four times the number in neighboring states.

During debate over the law, state Representative Robert Rita urged his colleagues to support it. He told the Senate the bill will create more jobs and tax revenue to fund construction projects like roadwork and park upgrades.

RITA: Senate bill 690 is a jobs bill. It’s going to create jobs. It’s going to create economic development. In closing, let’s vote yes and let’s put people to work.

Anita Bedell leads Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems—or the ILCAAAP for short. For decades, Bedell’s organization has worked to prevent problems caused by alcohol, drugs, and gambling addiction. And she warns those problems are only going to get worse as gambling expands.

BEDELL: We’re just very concerned because it’s going to put more machines and more temptation against people that are already in trouble with gambling. This is not good for, for the state, it’s not good for the people and the families of Illinois.

And while the problems associated with gambling are sure to multiply, Bedell warns the bill’s supposed benefits are much less certain.

Illinois legalized video gambling in 2009. Supporters predicted the state would rake in a billion dollars by 2014. But the tax revenue only totaled $70 million by then.

Still, players loved the slot machines, and they spread across the Illinois plains like wildfire.

TAMMY: I can’t imagine where else are going to put them. I mean the bowling alley, the bars, the grocery stores, the gas, well, the gas stations…

That’s Tammy. She asked us not to use her last name. She says she sees slot machines just about everywhere she goes.

TAMMY: When Sullivan got them, I was shocked. The grocery store. I was like, are you kidding me? I can go there and get groceries and go over there and gamble. Oh, who’s gonna see me in here? Everybody knows me in here. I’m not going there. [laughs]

Tammy is a gambling addict. She’s one of the many Illinois residents who have fed more than $21 billion combined into slot machines since they were legalized.

Tammy started gambling casually with a group of friends 20 years ago, but her habit quickly got out of hand. She realized she had a problem on one particular trip to Las Vegas.

TAMMY: I dropped 5,000 in 3 days, never in my life did I think I would do something like that.

Three years ago, Tammy’s marriage crumbled and her only daughter died. After that, her gambling got much worse. She went to bars and gambling houses, feeding 20 dollar bills into the slot machines, just to escape.

Slot machines are so addictive they’re sometimes referred to as electronic morphine—the “crack cocaine” of gambling. Bedell calls them addiction delivery devices.

BEDELL: It’s like the, the Skinner box where, where people just get so focused on the machines that they get in a zone and they don’t stop. It doesn’t matter if they’re winning or losing, they just continue to gamble.

Pathological gambling can be devastating. The estimated 10 million Americans who struggle with gambling addiction are also prone to depression and other addictions. 1 in 5 addicts considers or commits suicide to escape serious debt. Half of them commit crimes to fuel their addiction.

Illinois already has the highest rate of gambling-related arrests in the country. To help combat problems, the state adopted a self-exclusion program that allows people to ban themselves from casinos. It’s also dedicating nearly $7 million to fight gambling addiction.

But Bedell says that isn’t enough.

BEDELL: So while they put some money in the bill to address problem gambling, they are tripling the amount of gambling that we have. And there will be not enough resources, or help for people.

She’s also frustrated with what she considers to be complacency in the church. Congregations donate food and supplies to those in debt. And many churches host Gambler’s Anonymous groups. But Bedell says the church needs to be more vocal about the issue.

BEDELL: You need a voice of truth. You need someone to speak up for the people and the harm that it’s going to be inflicted on the people. So that’s where the church has, has a role to play.

Sometimes Bedell feels like she’s fighting a losing battle. But it’s a battle she’s called to fight anyway.

BEDELL: God put me here. He’s kept me here and so, and he sends people to help. So as long as he wants me to do this work, I will keep doing it.

For WORLD Radio, I’m John Vence, reporting from Seatonville, Illinois.

(Photo/Soloman Leiberman, Better Government)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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