Friday, July 2, 2010

Gambling With Welfare Money, is it Our Business?

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You know even in hard times you find people hitting the casino, but what if we told you your hard earned tax dollars are being gambled away?  A shocking L.A. Times report shows that California's welfare recipients are using state issue debit cards at casinos statewide.

Stephanie Zepelin: California welfare recipients using state issued debit card withdrew more than 1.8 million dollars in tax payer cash on casino floors starting October of 2009 right up to May 2010.  The revelation is outraging California residents.  Los Angelos Times  reporter Jack Dolan broke the story and indicates the problem could actually date back to 2002:
"officials at the department failed to notice for years that welfare recipients could use the state issued cards.. withdraw taxpayer cash at more than half of the tribal casinos and state-licensed poker rooms in California."

On NPR Dolan described the extent of the problem and what the state said about the revelation:
"Our review of state records show that it was slightly more than half of the casinos in...these smaller poker rooms in the state have ATMs that accept the welfare benefit cards.  And that they simply had not noticed that money was being withdrawn on gaming room floors."
The Consumerist puts the amount discovered into persepctive:
This amount represents less than 1% of the total welfare spending in the state during those months. 
In his column in the Atlanta Journal Constitution Bob  Barr says:
"California clearly didn't put the proper safeguards in place. Are these government officials so naive themselves  that they actually believed that in issuing virtually...unrestricted debit cards to people on welfare that they would use the cards only for purchasing bread, milk, and eggs?"

So what do you think of this latest revelation, an honest mistake by the state, or a major screw up that could result in big changes?

First, let's start with the often overlooked fact that casinos amount to little more than a tax on the people that can least afford it.  They are a vacuum that sucks up capitol and gives back very little in return.  They further feed on an illness - addiction to arrive at their profit.  They draw people in with shiny advertising, flashing lights, and loud sounds.  They scream come in, something exciting is happening here. Once you are inside, the floor plan is specifically designed to keep you in the building. The layout of the slot machines and table games are set up like a maze.  Windows are in short supply, so that patrons are not aware of the passing of time -- and finding a clock is like looking for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

What is often most hard for people to understand, who have no experience with gambling addiction or the gaming industry itself, is that the rush from gambling does not come from winning.  I repeat, the rush of gambling does not come from winning; it actually comes from losing.  This is why before even placing a bet, most gamblers will tell you that they are down hundreds if not thousands of dollars for the day. Ever wonder why a gambler cannot leave ahead?  It is because they have not gotten the adrenaline rush from losing -- a win does not feel as though anything has been wagered.  These casinos are specifically designed to ensure that they take every last dollar of disposable of income that a person has. They are predatory from start to finish.

Why would a welfare recipient be drawn to a place like this?  A casino sells dreams.  It makes you think about having enough money to do whatever it is that you want in life.   It tells you that the very next pull of the slot machine, turn of the card, or roll of the dice could make you richer than your wildest dreams -- if only have the guts to take the risk.  There is not a single game on a casino floor that does not have a bet in favour of the house, and in fact most people that gamble don't even know what the best bet to make is of their losing options.  They ignore the red/white on roulette or blackjack (which btw when they play they will still continue to pull cards thinking that the object is to get as close to 21 without going over; it's not as simple as that) They will sit and play longshot games like red dog, Caribbean stud, or Let it Ride, too fooled by the pay out odds to realize that they be better off  just writing the casino a check.

Into these dens of thievery walk these vulnerable citizens who have been fooled into believing the lie-- and people have the nerve to be angry at them, rather than the fact that casinos even exist in the first place.  Even if the government were to ban welfare recipients from playing tomorrow, casinos would still end up harming the poor.  There was a time when government eschewed getting into the business of gambling, but as greed and budget deficits ballooned suddenly the state found ways to justify the unjustifiable.

Throughout the story, the reporter kept referring to the welfare recipients as spending "hard earned tax dollars".  Had she spent even one day on welfare, she would have realized that socially, this is one of the toughest positions to be in.  Welfare workers pry into your private life constantly, and  police your every action. When these people receive the pittance that is allotted to them monthly, they have already paid with their human dignity. Of course, that is not enough for these conservatives, because the rallying cry is taxpayer dollars.  Perhaps they should have considered that California has had workfare since the mid 1980's.  These people are already working long hours for less that minimum wage, and yet somehow we still want to think of this as taxpayer money?  What is this but an attempt to control the least amongst us?

Even if welfare were purely a state grant without restriction, what right does the state have to tell a person what to do with the money?  Is it any wonder that people feel that it is justified to say that they won't give a beggar some loose change that is meaningless to them because, they don't want them to spend it on alcohol?  Unless a poor person spends every single disposable dollar on food, socially we feel it is okay to question their level of need. It seems that if you are poor, all that society thinks that you deserve is misery and maybe just enough food to keep from dying.  Even though the poor are considered surplus population, many wish to assert what little social power they have by finding ever more punishing restrictions based in flawed morals, rather than recognizing that this is nothing more than enforcing the social hierarchy.

I don't think that the poor should be gambling, only because I know all to well that it is a soul crushing sickness, that has lead to the break down of families, debt, death, and drug use.  However, never would I begin to presume that my personal moral reservations should apply to others, and that is the basis of a free society.  If we are going to chastise the poor for gambling, perhaps the state should not be in the casino business to begin with.