Voters will head to the polls in three weeks to vote on Prop 26 and Prop 27, potentially opening the doors to a California sports betting industry worth up to $3 billion per year. The pair of initiatives are far and away the most well-funded in US history with over $440 million spent as sportsbooks and Native American tribes wrestle for their piece of the massive sports-betting pie.
Anyone in California with a TV, radio, newspaper, or computer has seen the ads raving about the benefits of sports betting.
Proponents promise an estimated $300 million to $500 million in annual tax money will help the homeless, enrich the tribes, and curtail gaming’s black market.
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Naysayers contend Prop 26 will fuel gaming addiction and Prop 27 will serve only the interests of predatory sports-betting corporations such as DraftKings, FanDuel and BetMGM — helping the rich get richer but doing nothing for small businesses, tribes, or the California economy.
But among the most relevant issue lost in the madness of corporations, tribes, lobbyists, and special-interest groups putting their own needs first in the sports-betting gold rush is the real-life chaos that legalized gaming has inflicted on marginalized communities.
Native Americans, specifically, who are at the very heart of the Prop 26 vs. Prop 27 debate, have experienced a tumultuous past with operating in one of the world’s most addictive vice industries.
Native American Problem Gambling: The Highest of Any Ethnic Group
A 2019 study from Washington University in St. Louis estimated the problem-gambling rate for Native Americans adults was 2.3%. That doesn’t seem like much at first glance.
But that figure is more than twice the average rate of 1% among all American adults.
The National Council on Problem Gambling defines the term as gaming behavior patterns “that compromise, disrupt or damage personal, family or vocational pursuits.” In other words, a gambling addict bets beyond their means. Native Americans have the highest percent of people in this category — more than any other ethnic group.
“We’ve found that exposure to gambling has created a higher tendency for people around it to be involved,” Dr. Timothy Fong, co-director of UCLA’s Gambling Studies Program, told California Casinos. “A massive chunk of tribal revenue across the country comes from casinos and gaming, so it certainly makes sense that this demographic might be more at risk for problem gambling.”
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Fong, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction treatment, has dedicated over a decade of his career to exploring intersections between different addictions. He studies, for example, whether Native Americans’ leading rates of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and other drug-use disorders compared to other ethnic groups have any impact on their high percent of problem gambling.
Economic Status and Culture to Blame
Many scholars, including University of Buffalo senior research scientist Grace M. Barnes, believe socio-economic status has a significant impact on Americans’ tendency to fall into vices.
That trend is consistent across all races and ethnic groups. With one in four Native Americans living below the poverty line, it’s perhaps not surprising to see many turning to gaming, booze, drugs, and other vices as a coping mechanism to escape their reality, Barnes said.
“Addiction almost always starts slowly then gradually builds,” said Barnes, whose research includes several published works on Native Americans and gaming. “It’s incredibly rare that someone becomes a compulsive gambler, chain-smoker, or alcohol addict overnight.”
If socioeconomic status is to blame, could the financial boon of legalized sports betting somehow help people break free of their addiction to gambling? Experts say it’s complicated.
Would Prop 26 Help or Hurt?
Prop 26 would undoubtedly pad California tribes’ pockets in the increasingly unlikely event that voters approve it next month.
But centering more Native American prosperity on gaming revenues also comes with risks. If casino revenue was a solution to curbing gambling addiction, tribal success in gaming should already have helped wipe out the problem, some scholars argue.
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According to the American Gaming Association, the country’s nearly 550 tribal casinos drove in a record $14.81 billion in revenue last quarter. Yet Native Americans as a whole remain the poorest ethnic group in the US.
Patrick Pruitt, a Kansas City-based social worker of Chickasaw heritage, said tribes must work on education to go along with the financial success of their casinos in order for problem gambling to slow down.
Until then, the casino windfall will only exacerbate tribes’ problems.
“It’s important to recognizing the perils of problem gambling and treat it as something that’s every bit as harmful as alcohol and drug addiction, or any other addiction for that matter,” Pruitt said. “The addiction crisis in many tribes has snowballed over the centuries, and education is more important than ever for us to reverse it.”
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