Kerby Anderson

Gambling used to be what a few unscrupulous people did with the aid of organized crime. But gambling fever now seems to affect nearly everyone as more and more states try to legalize various forms of gambling. Legalized gambling exists in forty-seven states and the District of Columbia. The momentum seems to be on the side of those who want legalized gambling as a way to supplement state revenues. But these states and their citizens often ignore the costs that are associated with legalized gambling. The social and economic costs are enormous.

Bad Social Policy

Legalized gambling is bad social policy. At a time when Gamblers Anonymous estimates that there are at least 12 million compulsive gamblers, it doesn't make a lot of sense to have the state promoting gambling. State sponsorship of gambling makes it harder, not easier, for the compulsive gambler to reform. Since about 96 percent of those gamblers began gambling before the age of 14(1), we should especially be concerned about the message such a policy would send to young people.

The economic costs that gamblers themselves incur are significant. Consider just the issue of uncollected debts. The average compulsive gambler has debts exceeding $80,000(2). And this figure pales in comparison to other social costs that surface because of family neglect, embezzlement, theft, and involvement in organized crime.

Proponents argue that state lotteries are an effective way to raise taxes painlessly. But the evidence shows that legalized gambling often hurts those who are poor and disadvantaged. One New York lottery agent stated, "Seventy percent of those who buy my tickets are poor, black, or Hispanic."(3) And a National Bureau of Economic Research "shows that the poor bet a much larger share of their income."(4)

A major study on the effect of the California lottery came to the same conclusions. The Field Institute's California Poll found that 18 percent of the state's adults bought 71 percent of the tickets. These heavy lottery players (who bought more than 20 tickets in the contest's first 45 days) are "more likely than others to be black, poorer and less educated than the average Californian."(5)

Studies also indicate that gambling increases when economic times are uncertain and people are concerned about their future. Joseph Dunn (director of the National Council on Compulsive Gambling) says, "People who are worried about the factory closing take a chance on making it big. Once they win anything, they're hooked."(6)

The social impact of gambling is often hidden from the citizens who decide to participate in legalized gambling. But later these costs show up in the shattered lives of individuals and their families. Psychologist Julian Taber warns, "No one knows the social costs of gambling or how many players will become addicted...the states are experimenting with the minds of the people on a massive scale."(7) Families are torn apart by strife, divorce, and bankruptcy. Boydon Cole and Sidney Margolius in their book, When You Gamble--You Risk More Than Your Money, conclude: "There is no doubt of the destructive effect of gambling on the family life. The corrosive effects of gambling attack both the white-collar and blue-collar families with equal vigor."(8)

Bad Governmental Policy

Legalized gambling is also bad governmental policy. Government should promote public virtue not seduce its citizens to gamble in state-sponsored vice. Government is supposed to be a minister of God according to Romans 13, but its moral stance is compromised when it enters into a gambling enterprise.

Citizens would be outraged if their state government began enticing its citizens to engage in potentially destructive behavior (like taking drugs). But those same citizens see no contradiction when government legalizes and even promotes gambling. Instead of being a positive moral force in society, government contributes to the corruption of society.

Ross Wilhelm (Professor of Business Economics, University of Michigan) says,

State lotteries and gambling games are essentially 'a rip-off' and widespread legalization of gambling is one of the worst changes in public policy to have occurred in recent years. . . .The viciousness of the state-run games is compounded beyond belief by the fact that state governments actively advertise and promote the games and winners.(9)
The corrosive effect legalized gambling has on government itself is also a cause for concern. As one editorial in New York Times noted, "Gambling is a business so rich, so fast, so powerful and perhaps inevitably so unsavory that it cannot help but undermine government."(10)

Legal and Illegal Gambling

One of the standard cliches used by proponents of legalized gambling is that if we institute legal gambling, we will drive out illegal gambling. This argument makes a number of faulty assumptions. First, it assumes that people are going to gamble anyway; thus, the state might as well get a piece of the action. Second, it assumes that given the choice, people would rather gamble in a state-sponsored program because it will be regulated. The state, the argument goes, will make sure that the program is fair and that each participant has an equal chance of winning. Third, it assumes that if the state enters the gambling arena, it will drive out illegal gambling because it will be a more efficient competitor for gamblers' dollars.

The arguments seem sound, but they are not. Although some people do gamble illegally, most citizens do not. Legalized gambling, therefore, entices people to gamble who normally would not gamble at all.

Second, legal gambling does not drive out illegal gambling. If anything, just the opposite is true. As legalized gambling comes into a state, it provides additional momentum for illegal gambling. The Organized Crime Section of the Department of Justice found that "the rate of illegal gambling in those states which have some legalized form of gambling was three times as high as those states where there was not a legalized form of gambling."(11) And one national review found that,

In states with different numbers of games, participation rates increase steadily and sharply as the number of legal types of gambling increases. Social betting more than doubles from 35 percent in states with no legal games to 72 percent in states with three legal types; the illegal gambling rate more than doubles from nine percent to 22 percent; and commercial gambling increases by 43 percent, from 24 to 67 percent.(12)
Legalized gambling in various states has not been a competitor to, but rather has become a stimulator of illegal gambling.

The reasons for the growth of illegal gambling in areas where legalized gambling exists are simple. First, organized crime syndicates often use the free publicity of state lotteries and pari-mutuel betting to run their own numbers games. The state actually saves them money by providing publicity for events involving gambling. Second, many gamblers would rather bet illegally than legally. When they work with a bookie, they can bet on credit and don't have to report their winnings to the government. These are at least two things they can't do if they bet on state-sponsored games, and this explains why illegal gambling thrives in states with legalized gambling.

Another important issue is the corrupting influence legalized gambling can have on society. First, legalized gambling can have a very corrupting influence on state government. In the last few years there have been numerous news reports of corruption and fraud in state lotteries. Second, there is the corrupting influence on the citizens themselves. Gambling breeds greed. A person is seven times more likely to be killed by lightning than he is to win a million dollars in a state lottery.(13) Yet every single year, people bet large amounts of money in state lotteries because they hope they will win the jackpot. Moreover, states and various gambling establishments produce glitzy ads that appeal to people's greed in order to entice them to risk even more than they can afford.

Society should be promoting positive social values like thrift and integrity rather than negative ones like greed and avarice. We should be promoting the public welfare rather than seducing our citizens to engage in state-sponsored vice.

Economic Costs

Legalized forms of gambling (state lotteries, pari-mutuel betting, and casinos) are often promoted as good economic policy. Proponents say they are painless ways of increasing state revenue, and they can point to billions of dollars raised by state governments through various forms of legalized gambling. But there is another economic side to legalized gambling.

First, the gross income statistics for legalized gambling are much higher than the net income. Consider state lotteries as one example. Although about half the states have lotteries and the figures vary from state to state, we can work with some average figures. Generally, the cost of management, advertising, and promotion is approximately 60 cents of each dollar. In other words, for every dollar raised in a lottery, only 40 cents goes to the state budget. By contrast, direct taxation of the citizens only costs about 1 cent on the dollar. So for every dollar raised by taxes, 99 cents goes to the state budget.

Second, gambling adversely affects a state economy. Legalized gambling depresses businesses because it diverts money that could have been spent in the capital economy into gambling which does not stimulate the economy. Boarded-up businesses surrounding casinos are a visible reminder of this, but the effect on the entire economy is even more devastating than may be at first apparent. Money that could be invested, loaned, and recycled through the economy is instead risked in a legalized gambling scheme. Legalized gambling siphons off a lot of money from the economy. More money is wagered on gambling than is spent on elementary and secondary education ($286 billion versus $213 billion in 1990).(14) Historian John Ezel concludes in his book, Fortune's Merry Wheel, "If history teaches us anything, a study of over 1300 legal lotteries held in the United States proves...they cost more than they brought in if their total impact on society is reckoned."(15)

Sports Gambling

Although sports gambling is illegal in almost every state, there has been a push over the last few years to legalize it. One concern is how sports gambling has affected the integrity of the game. Illegal gambling has already adversely affected sports; legalizing it would simply make matters worse.

One issue revolves around how sports betting is done. Betting is done against a point spread. A team is picked to win by so many points. I have been surprised at how much the point spread has become a part of the game. You have probably gone to sporting events at which people in the stands were disappointed that their team did not beat the point spread. Even though the team won, some of the fans were upset that they did not defeat the team by enough points to cover the spread.

True fans are concerned if the team wins or loses. Gamblers, however, are concerned with whether the team was able to beat the point spread. Winning by one point is not enough if the point spread was three.

Sportswriters and sports broadcasters routinely announce that a team is favored by a certain number of points. They argue that reporting such information is appropriate because it is relevant to the game. But is it? I believe that when the headlines of a newspaper boldly state, "Denver Broncos favored by 6 points," they have gone far beyond merely reporting about a sporting event and are actually promoting sports gambling.

Sports gambling has affected sports by introducing organized crime into the sporting arena. Past scandals at Boston College or Tulane illustrate how gambling has adversely affected the integrity of athletes, coaches, and colleges. Players have been involved in point-shaving scandals and the problem could only become worse in an environment where sports gambling is legalized.

Another area of concern is how government would be involved in sports gambling. Legalizing sports gambling opens up the possibility (even the necessity) of governmental investigation. A wise sports decision might be questioned by a government oversight body. Imagine a football team picked to win by more than three points but leading by only one point with less than a minute left. Even if they were on their opponent's 20-yard-line, they might decide not to kick a field goal. To do so would risk the possibility of a blocked kick perhaps allowing the other team a chance to score. A wise coach might tell his team to sit on the ball and let the clock run out. The team would win, but not beat the point spread. Citizens who lost money would certainly call for an investigation to see if fraud was involved.

Obviously sports gambling takes place, even though it is illegal. There are good reasons why we should not legalize it. It is bad social policy, it is bad economic policy, and it is bad governmental policy. Sports gambling would not only be bad for these reasons but also because it would adversely affect the integrity of the game.

Biblical Perspective on Gambling

Even though the Bible does not directly address gambling, we can derive a number of principles from Scripture. First, notice the contrast between the Bible and gambling. The Bible emphasizes the sovereignty of God (Matt. 10:29-30), while gambling is based upon chance. The Bible admonishes us to work creatively and for the benefit of others (Eph. 4:28), while gambling fosters a "something for nothing" attitude. The Bible condemns materialism (Matt. 6:24 25), while gambling promotes it.

Let's also look at the "fruits" of gambling. First, gambling breeds a form of covetousness. The Tenth Commandment (Exodus 20) admonishes us not to covet. Coveting, greed, and selfishness are the base emotions that entice us to gamble. I believe Christians should be concerned about gambling if for no other reason than the effect it has on the weaker brother and how it will affect the compulsive gambler. State-sponsored gambling makes it harder for the compulsive gambler to reform. Legalized gambling becomes an institutionalized form of greed.

Second, gambling destroys the work ethic. Two key biblical passages deal with the work ethic. In Colossians 3:23-24 the Apostle Paul says,

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
And in 2 Thessalonians 3:7,10, he says,

For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example....For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: If a man will not work, he shall not eat.
The Twentieth Century Fund research group commented, "Gambling's get-rich-quick appeal appears to mock capitalism's core values: Disciplined work habits, thrift, prudence, adherence to routine, and the relationship between effort and reward."(16) These core values of the work ethic are all part of the free enterprise system and are part of the Christian life. Gambling corrupts these values and replaces them with greed and selfishness. Rather than depending upon hard work, gamblers depend instead upon luck and chance.

Third, gambling destroys families. Gambling is a major cause of family neglect. Many of the social costs associated with gambling come from its mindset. As people get caught up in a gambling frenzy, they begin to neglect their families. Money spent on lottery tickets or at horse tracks is frequently not risk capital but is income that should be spent on family needs. In 1 Timothy 5:8 it says that a person who refuses to care for his family is worse than an infidel. Parents must provide for their children (2 Cor. 12:14) and eat the bread of their labors (2 Thess. 3:12). When gambling is legalized, it causes people to neglect their God- mandated responsibility to care for their families, and these families often end up on welfare.

Fourth, gambling is a form of state-sponsored greed. We read in Romans 13 that government is to be a minister of God. Government should provide order in society and promote public virtue. Legalized gambling undercuts government's role and subverts the moral fabric of society through greed and selfishness promoted by a state-sponsored vice.

Gambling is bad social policy; it is bad economic policy; and it is bad governmental policy. Moreover, it undermines the moral foundations of society and invites corruption in government. As Christians, I believe we must stand against society's attempts to legalize gambling.


1. "Gambling in America," Gambling Awareness Action Guide (Nashville: Christian Life Commission, 1984), 5.

2. Sylvia Porter, "Economic Costs of Compulsive Gambling in U.S. Staggering," Dallas Morning News, 4 January 1984, 6C.

3. Charles Colson, "The Myth of the Money Tree," Christianity Today, 10 July 1987, 64.

4. Gary Becker, "Higher Sin Taxes: A Low Blow to the Poor," Business Week, 5 June 1989, 23.

5. Brad Edmonson, "Demographics of Gambling," American Demographics, July 1986, 40-41.

6. Curt Suplee, "Lotto Baloney," Harper's, July 1983, 19.

7. Julian Taber, "Opinion," USA Today, 14 August 1989, 4.

8. Borden Cole and Sidney Margolis, When You Gamble--You Risk More Than Your Money (New York: Public Affairs Pamphlet, 1964), 12.

9. "State Lotteries and Gambling--Results Have Not Equaled Expectations," USA Today, vol. 107, no. 2407 (April 1979), 1.

10. New York Times, 9 February 1980.

11. Emmett Henderson, State Lottery: The Absolute Worst Form of Legalized Gambling (Atlanta, Geo.: Georgia Council on Moral and Civil Concerns, n.d.), 26.

12. The Final Report of the Commission on the Review of National Policy Toward Gambling, 1976, 71.

13. Suplee, 15.

14. David Neff and Thomas Giles, "Feeding the Monster Called More," Christianity Today, 25 November 1991, 20.

15. Cited by William Petersen in What You Should Know About Gambling (New Canaan, Conn.: Keats Publishing, 1973), 37.

16. James Mann, "Gambling Rage: Out of Control," U.S. News and World Report, 30 May 1983, 30.

© 1997 Probe Ministries International