Gambling, Government, and God, Revisited
At one time, state governments opposed most forms of gambling. But as Charles Clotfelter and Philip Cook said as early as 1989 in their book Selling Hope: State Lotteries in America, "The complete about face from prohibition to promotion in one state after another is remarkable." The number of states with lotteries has grown from seven in 1973, with $2 billion in total sales, to forty-two (plus the District of Columbia), with total sales of $52 billion. In 2005, $16.4 billion in proceeds from state lotteries went into government programs. In only ten states do revenues from state lotteries go into general funds. In seventeen states, they are earmarked in whole or in part for education.
Lotteries stand out from other forms of commercial gambling in a number of ways. Played by about half of American adults during any given year, they are the most widespread form of gambling, and the only type that is virtually a state monopoly. In addition, the odds of winning in state lotteries are the worst, but the payoffs are the highest.
Counting commercial, racetrack, and tribal casinos, thirty-eight states have casino gambling. The largest growth in legal gambling during the past decade has involved tribal casinos.
Opponents believe gambling, including state-sponsored gambling, is morally wrong, that it diverts money from other purchases that are taxable, and that it acts like a regressive tax. State sponsorship may also aggravate problem gambling, leading to increased divorce, crime, and broken homes. Estimates say that 1.7 million to 2.6 million American adults have met the criteria for pathological gambling in the past year, along with 1.1 million children ages twelve to eighteen. Opposition has come from a number of sources, notably religious organizations.
Over the past fifteen years, the South has been the main front in the battle over legalized gambling, especially state lotteries. Twenty-six non-southern states had already instituted lotteries by the time Virginia and Florida became the first southern states to have them in 1988. Until 2005, North Carolina was the largest state without a state lottery, and that issue figured prominently in its 2000 gubernatorial campaign. In 1999, Alabama defeated a state lottery referendum, and, in 2000, South Carolina voters approved such a ballot measure by a narrow margin. Since then, state lotteries have gone into effect in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and North Carolina.
What are Americans' attitudes about state-sponsored gambling? We explored this question and others in a study published in Public Perspective magazine in 2002. Here we revisit the issue, with updated data and some new insights.
The 1999 Gallup Social Audit survey found that just under two-thirds of Americans nationwide approved of legal gambling or betting, and one-third disapproved. Those who approved did so primarily because they saw it as a personal choice, an enjoyable activity, or a source of state revenue. Those who disapproved were mainly concerned about people going into debt or becoming addicted, or about an increase in crime. Fourteen percent disapproved out of religious conviction.
In separate polls conducted in 2006, the Pew Research Center and the Harvard School of Public Health have found that state lotteries had the highest level of public approval (71 percent to 72 percent) among various forms of betting that are legalized by states to raise revenues, while about two-thirds (66 percent) approved of bingo for cash prizes. A majority disapproved of betting on professional sports.
The same polls indicate that a majority (51 to 62 percent) approved of casino gambling as a way to raise state revenues. In a 1998 survey conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University, Americans were split in their opinions of legalized casino gambling in their own states (47 percent in favor, 48 percent opposed) when raising revenue was not mentioned.
Two-thirds of respondents in the Pew survey said they had participated in one or more of thirteen types of gambling during the past year, and another 12 percent had gambled, but not in the past year.
Figure 1 shows the percentages who said they had taken part in various kinds of gambling during the past year. About one in eight reported that they buy a state lottery ticket once a week or more often. Most people who gamble said they play mostly for enjoyment (71 percent) rather than to win money (21 percent).
Many Americans have ambivalent feelings about gambling. In the 2006 Harvard School of Public Health Survey, more thought legalization of gambling helps society (53 percent) than hurts it (39 percent). This is virtually identical to findings from 1993 and 2000 by Gallup/CNN/USA Today and the Harvard School of Public Health, respectively. But when asked in 2000 by Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard which consideration was the more important when it came to legalized gambling, 50 percent cited the crime and social problems it creates, while only 36 percent pointed to the revenue and economic growth it produces.
In 1999 a majority of the public (58 percent) agreed that legalized gambling provided needed revenue for government programs while keeping taxes under control, but 55 percent also believed it was creating a compulsive gambling problem in this country. In 2006 about two-thirds (70 percent) told Pew they believed that legalized gambling encourages people to gamble more than they can afford. Only about one in four in the 2000 Harvard School of Public Health study said it was wrong for states to promote gambling, while 70 percent said it was not wrong. Aside from the issue of state sponsorship of gambling, about one-third (28 percent to 35 percent) of respondents in the two 2006 Pew polls and a 2005 poll by Gallup believed that gambling is morally wrong.
A more sharply defined picture of the spectrum of opinion on gambling emerges from an analysis of results from four questions in the 2006 Harvard School of Public Health and Pew surveys. Such an examination reveals significant differences in attitudes about state-sponsored gambling by age and region, as well as by measures of religiosity and attitudes about other social issues.
On all four questions, respondents under age fifty took pro-gambling positions more often than Americans ages sixty-five and over, by a range of fifteen to twenty-six percentage points. The younger group of adults showed greater approval of lotteries and casino gambling as a way for their own states to raise revenues. They were also significantly more likely than seniors to see society as being helped rather than hurt by state-sponsored gambling, and more likely to disagree that it is morally wrong to gamble.
Not surprisingly, given their region’s late start in instituting state lotteries, southerners were significantly less likely than northeasterners and/or westerners to take pro-gambling positions on the three questions where we could look at regional differences. Nonetheless, a majority of southerners approved of both lotteries and casino gambling as a way of raising state revenues.
Born-again Christians were significantly less likely than mainline Protestants, Catholics, and people who professed no religious preference to take pro-gambling positions on the three questions where we had such a measure. On the fourth question, white evangelical Protestants (49 percent) were more than twice as likely as total Catholics (19 percent) and seculars (13 percent), as well as white mainline Protestants (20 percent) to believe it is morally wrong to gamble.
On three of the four measures, men were significantly more likely than women to express pro-gambling attitudes. Republicans were less likely than Democrats or Independents to favor lotteries and casino gambling as ways of raising state revenues, and more likely than Independents to see society as being hurt by state-sponsored gambling. Whites were more likely than African Americans to believe that state-sponsored gambling helps society, and to disagree that it is morally wrong to gamble.
While these variations are interesting, the biggest differences in attitudes about state-sponsored gambling were found on variables measuring religiosity and related moral concerns.
On all three questions where the comparison was available, highly religious people were significantly less likely than less religious Americans to take pro-gambling positions, by a range of twenty-three to thirty-eight percentage points. Americans who said that religion was the most important thing in their lives (25 percent of the adult population) were significantly less likely than those who said religion was somewhat or not too important to approve of lotteries and casino gambling as ways of raising state revenues.
The most religious Americans were also significantly less likely to see society as being helped rather than hurt by state-sponsored gambling.
Regression analysis on these three Harvard School of Public Health questions indicates that religiosity is a significantly more powerful predictor of gambling attitudes than are party identification and such demographic variables as gender, age, and race.
In addition, the most religious Americans (those who said religion was the most important thing in their lives or that it was extremely important) were almost three times as likely (35 percent to 13 percent) as the less religious (who said religion was only somewhat or not important) to believe it was morally wrong for states to promote gambling through state lotteries.
A scale for measuring religiosity was constructed for the 1998 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University Survey of Americans on Values from respondents’ reports of the importance of religion in their own lives, frequency of religious attendance, and frequency of prayer. On this scale (high, medium, low), only 23 percent of highly religious respondents favored legalized casino gambling in their state, compared with 65 percent of the low-religiosity group.
The data also suggest that gambling attitudes are part of a larger constellation of moral concerns. Those who take a generally pro-life position are significantly less likely to approve of casino gambling in their states both as a way of raising revenues and without mention of state revenues (36 percent to 57 percent), and they were more likely to think state-sponsored gambling hurt society (49 percent to 28 percent). Similarly, those who oppose physician-assisted suicide are less likely to approve of casino gambling as a way of raising revenues (50 percent to 73 percent) and without mention of state revenues (34 percent to 59 percent), and more likely to think state-sponsored gambling hurts society (50 percent to 29 percent).
Parts of this pattern of gambling attitudes nationwide carry over to the South. Southern men are more likely than southern women to favor casino gambling. Independents are more likely than Republicans to see state-sponsored gambling as helping rather than hurting society.
Once again, the most notable rift is between those southerners who are born-again Christians and those who are not, and between more religious and less religious southerners. Born-again Christians are significantly less likely (differences of fourteen to twenty percentage points) than other southerners to favor state lotteries and casino gambling and more likely to think that society is hurt by state-sponsored gambling. Even larger differences (twenty-eight to thirty-five points) can be seen between highly religious and less religious southerners.
In 2000, a state lottery referendum in South Carolina demonstrated some of the cleavages in attitudes about state-sponsored gambling. The hotly contested referendum, which passed 54 percent to 46 percent, was supported by Democratic governor Jim Hodges, who argued during his election campaign for a state lottery like Georgia’s to help fund education. Not surprisingly, a large majority of Democrats supported the referendum, while Republicans opposed it. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of young South Carolinians voted for the referendum, compared with only 37 percent of those ages sixty and over.
While we do not have any direct measures of religiosity in the South Carolina survey, only 44 percent of white Protestants voted for the referendum, compared with 71 percent of all others. Only about one-fourth (27 percent) of those white voters who identified themselves as part of the religious right voted in favor. Overwhelmingly, the main reason given by “Yes” voters was education. Morality was by far the biggest reason “No” voters gave for their stance.
A 2004 University of Tennessee poll, conducted about a year after that state’s lottery went into effect, found that registered Tennessean voters ages forty-six and over were more likely than those ages eighteen to thirty-five to oppose the state lottery, although they were no less likely to favor it. But more striking is the difference in attitudes by religious attendance. Those Tennesseans who said they attended religious services once a week or more were far less likely than those who attended less often to support the state lottery.
Nearly four out of five Americans have gambled at some time in their lives, and state-sponsored gambling has been a rapidly-growing business over the past thirty years. But differences in attitudes about gambling give a glimpse of important rifts in American society, especially by measures of religiosity broadly indicative of a pattern of differences in moral and social concerns LINK (Benson and Herrmann 1999, 2000).
For some time, apart from enduring core constituencies (minorities such as African Americans, who remain overwhelmingly Democratic, and free-enterprise sorts, who remain loyal Republicans) and issues of war and peace, the parties have been sorting increasingly by differences in religiosity and forms of religious practice.
These cleavages along moral and political lines are clearly evident in the recent lottery debates in a number of Southern states. Nationally, gambling was not a major issue in the 2006 congressional elections, nor is it likely to be one in the 2008 presidential campaign, certainly not as long as the war in Iraq, the threat of terrorism, and the state of the economy dominate the public debate. But it is not likely to go away at the state level, where it has both a financial and a moral aspect.
John M. Benson is managing director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program, Harvard School of Public Health. Tina M. Reigel is a corporate research analyst. Melissa J. Herrmann is executive vice president of ICR.
The data presented in this paper are derived primarily from four sources:
Pew Research Center Survey
•Interviews conducted via telephone by Princeton Survey Research Associates
•Interview dates: February 8-March 7, 2006
•Sample: 2,250 adults nationwide
•Margin of error at 95 percent confidence level: plus or minus 2.5 percentage points
•Response rate: unavailable
Harvard School of Public Health Survey
•Interviews conducted via telephone by ICR/International Communications Research
•Interview dates: August 16-20, 2006
•Sample: 1,010 adults nationwide
•Margin of error at 95 percent confidence level: plus or minus 3 percentage points
•Response rate: unavailable
Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University Survey of Americans on Values
•Interviews conducted via telephone by Chilton Research Services
•Interview dates: July 19-August 18, 1998
•Sample: 2,025 adults nationwide
•Margin of error at 95 percent confidence level: plus or minus 2.5 percentage points
•Response rate: 46 percent, calculated by the RR4 method described in AAPOR's Standard Definitions (1998)
Specific results from ten other nationwide telephone surveys, the VNS 2000 South Carolina Election Day exit poll, and one poll conducted in the state of Tennessee.
Wherever differences are noted between the responses of subgroups, significance is at the P<.05 level.
The Religiosity Scale
The religiosity scale was constructed from the following questions from the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University Survey of Americans on Values, conducted July 19-August 18, 1998:
How important is religion in your everyday life? The most important thing in your life; extremely important, but not the most important thing; very important; somewhat important; or not important at all?
Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend religious services? More than once a week, once a week, once or twice a month, a few times a year, seldom, or never?
About how often do you pray? Would you say several times a day, once a day, several times a week, once a week, less than once a week, or never?
American Gaming Association. 2006. State of the states: The AGA survey of casino entertainment.
Benson, John M., and Melissa J. Herrmann. 1999. Right to die or right to life? The public on assisted suicide. Public Perspective 10(4): 15-19.
Benson, John M., and Melissa J. Herrmann. 2000. Religion in the public square: Implications for election 2000 and beyond. Paper delivered at the Annual Conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, Portland, Oregon, May.
Benson, John M., Tina M. Reigel, and Melissa J. Herrmann. 2002. Gambling, governments and God. Public Perspective, 13(1): 34-37.
Clotfelter, Charles T., and Philip J. Cook. 1989. Selling hope: State lotteries in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Dunstan, Roger. 1997. Gambling in California.
National Gambling Impact Study Commission (NGISC). 1999. Final Report.
North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries (NASPL). 2006. General information.
Pew Research Center. 2006. Gambling: As the take rises, so does public concern.
Young, Richard D. State Lotteries: History, practices, issues and the South Carolina educational lottery. 2004. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina College of Liberal Arts, Institute for Public Service and Policy Research.