How video gambling companies profit off communities of color

by state Rep. Stephen Kinsey

As community activists and public officials call for a change in how resources are provided to communities of color throughout the Commonwealth, some members of the state legislature are still looking into policies that exploit low-income and minority neighborhoods. The most recent example is the fast-tracking of legislation that would create thousands of mini casinos and slots parlors on every street corner in cities across the state. This is simply a proliferation of gambling that historically targets poor and largely minority communities.

My colleagues and I on both sides of the political aisle are working hard to address policies that rethink how we fund and operate policing in our communities and how we can better reinvest public tax dollars back into programs that lift up minority neighborhoods. This includes investments in public education, economic development and health care. But, as the General Assembly finally begins to address the systemic issues and inequities that plague communities of color, some in the legislature are pushing for expanded gambling that will have major consequences in our neighborhoods.

Even as the eyes of the world have been opened to the injustices and inequities facing people of color, a coalition of out-of-sate video gambling companies are looking to expand their predatory practices and bring tens of thousands of video gambling devices into bars, restaurants and grocery stores. These machines disproportionately impact minority communities. The companies that operate them know this and simply don’t care.

Regardless of your stance on gambling in general, there is no doubt that video gambling terminals, or VGTs as they are so quaintly called, are predatory against low-income and minority communities. These aren’t anecdotal stories, but proven facts. There is significant statistical evidence that shows just how exploitative these companies are and how they target marginalized communities.

To see the drastic and devastating impacts of video gambling on low-income and minority families, just look at Illinois, which in 2013 expanded its gambling array to include 30,000 VGTs throughout the state. Not only was the bet on VGTs bad for Illinois’ economy, in a report from 2019 by a joint effort between ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Sun-Times, an analysis of demographical and Illinois Gaming Control Board data showed that VGTs were found concentrated in low-income, minority areas of the state. In the report, ProPublica said:

“Devices can be found in Berwyn but not Oak Park, Waukegan but not Lake Forest, Harvey but not Palos Park. In fact, as the average income level of a municipality decreases, the average number of machines increases.”

So, let’s dig a little deeper and talk about the demographics of the communities ProPublica highlights in their expose:

Gambling machines are found in Berwyn, Ill., which has a population made up of about 70% Black and Hispanic residents. But there are no machines in Oak Park, Ill., which has a population that is roughly 68% white.

Machines were placed in Waukegan, Ill., where just over 70% of the population are people of color. No machines are found in Lake Forest, Ill., which is nearly 88% white.

Video gaming terminals are in Harvey, Ill., where the population of black residents is over 75%. And, you guessed it, no machines in Palos Park, Ill. -- almost 93 percent white.

The fight against injustice and inequality is not solely about reforming government’s perception relating to police practices and aggression toward communities of color. It’s also about lifting our communities up and creating a level playing field so that Black and Brown citizens have the same opportunities to achieve, succeed and thrive as much as their white counterparts.

But the consistent and often unnoticed predatory policies that are disproportionally levied on minority neighborhoods, like payday lending companies, “stop and go” liquor establishments, and now bars, restaurants, convenience stores and groceries offering slot machine style gambling machines, speak to a much larger systemic attitude toward poor, minority citizens. We need to stand against these types of policies that prey on communities or color and force on us additional social issues that negatively impact our economic opportunities.

These are policies that need to be wholly rejected by leaders who say they stand with our communities. Because without understanding the insulting and damaging nature of policies that allow predatory, out-of-state companies to target Pennsylvania’s people of color, we will never see true justice and economic freedom for our communities.