Gambling in Wisconsin: Learning from Our History

Gambling in Wisconsin: Learning from Our History

2019 | Week of March 11 | #1299

March is National Problem Gambling Awareness Month. So let’s talk about gambling in Wisconsin. A 1996 survey revealed that less than 1% of Wisconsin citizens, or about 32,425 residents were problem gamblers and that the social costs related to those problem gamblers was over $300 million, or $9,469 per problem gambler in general and over $10,000 per casino problem gambler. Those numbers clearly should have told us something.  But they didn’t.

And now, in 2019, Wisconsin has approximately 7% of its adult population, or  over 333,000 people, identified as problem gamblers, which means, even using the same now very-old 1996 per-gambler cost, Wisconsin society now pays over $3 billion in social costs related to the dysfunctional consequences of problem gambling.  Once again, those numbers should clearly tell us something.

So what are some of the drivers in this drastic increase in the number of problem gamblers in The Badger State?  Certainly the lottery and its unconstitutional, ubiquitous and engaging advertising with especially hard pushes in zip codes where high percentages of the population are in poverty, is one driver. And another is undoubtedly more casinos and, more importantly, more games and longer hours for the casinos.

In 1991 and 1992, just four years before the referenced survey, then-governor Tommy Thompson signed eleven tribal compacts and with that signing Indian gaming casinos began operating in Wisconsin.  In those days, the number of games was pretty well restricted, as were the hours of operation; and compacts were reviewed, renegotiated, and resigned on a regular basis, generally every 5-7 years.

However, that all changed in 2003, when then-Governor Jim Doyle decided to dramatically increase the number of games casinos could offer, expanded the hours of operation, and arranged that the compacts never again had to be renegotiated. That provision has been mitigated somewhat by a 2005 court decision. The bottom line is that as of 2016, which appears to be the most recent data, eleven tribes operate twenty-four casinos, with 15,402 gaming devices and 294 gaming tables.  The tribes’ net revenue, not gross, since 1992 is over $21 billion.

Studies have shown that having a casino within 10 miles—and some studies show 50 miles—of a person’s home significantly increases the likelihood of a person becoming a problem gambler.

What’s amazing is that even knowing that two communities are right now considering building casinos—Beloit and Shullsburg—and either one would represent the first off-reservation casino in our state. Imagine what our problem gambling numbers would be if all the tribes could build off-reservation casinos.

Last session during the budget debate, Democrat Senator Lena Taylor recommended a 10% set-aside of the proposed $1 million per year increase in illegal lottery advertising to be used to help minorities struggling with gambling problems. Unfortunately, the Republicans shot her idea down with no discussion.  By allowing for casino gaming increases and more lottery appeals to the public, the state is definitely contributing to the growing gambling problem, and chipping in additional monies to help the problem they are creating seems at a minimum reasonable and responsible.

The hard truth is gambling for many people isn’t just innocent entertainment; it becomes a powerful addiction, impacting families and entire communities. It stresses marriages, results in crimes, especially embezzling, creates poverty for families, often causes depression and sometimes even suicide.  In reality, problem gambling comes with a steep price tag for everyone who lives in a state where casinos abound.

Problem Gambling Awareness Month is a good time for all Wisconsin citizens to wake up to the truth about gambling.  Let’s learn from our history—our very recent history. Wisconsin doesn’t need a dime more for lottery advertising or any more casinos; the price is simply too high.

For more information and to learn how you can support the work of Wisconsin Family Council, please visit or call 888-378-7395.

This is Julaine Appling for Wisconsin Family Council reminding you the Prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

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