Commentary

Minnesotans need to open our eyes about problem gambling | Column

June 8, 2021 7:59 am

Terra Carbert poses for a portrait at Hopkins Gethsemane Lutheran Church, the church she grew up going to and the place where she attended her first meetings when recovering from gambling addiction, Saturday, June 5, 2021. “It’s amazing how just being in a place brings all of the memories back,” she said. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

At dawn on July 30, 2016, Terra Carbert was in her car with $2 in cash, enough for a gallon of gas to get home. 

“I left the casino that night staring at the lake across the street from Little 6, and thinking I could just floor it,” she told me recently. “I could just floor it and be in that lake. I’m worth more dead than alive.”

It was payday, and she’d lost her entire paycheck — just a slice of the roughly $40,000 she blew gambling in 2015 and 2016. More painful than the money, however, was the shame. 

A few years before, she encountered a woman outside a casino in the early morning hours who begged her for some money to get home. Carbert remembered thinking: I’ll never be like that woman. 

And there she was, retirement account drained, credit cards maxed out, even her son’s savings account raided — all to feed the voracious addiction. 

Thankfully, she chose life. She went home, confessed to her brother that she had a gambling problem and needed help. 

Now she’s an inspiration, but Minnesotans should consider her story as we deal with the mounting social costs of an increasingly popular entertainment option. 

Electronic pull tab games have exploded in popularity at bars and restaurants, sharing proceeds with charitable organizations and the fund to pay off the state’s share of that epic boondoggle — the football stadium where men suffer lifelong pain and suffering for our entertainment. 

But I digress: Tribal interests, seeking to protect their monopoly on slot machines, sought to rein in the electronic pull tab games at the Legislature this year, without success. 

A Star Tribune editorial headline captured the state’s weird ignorance about gambling: “Legislature, Walz shouldn’t squander e-pull tab success.”

Whose success? On every side of a wager there’s a loser, and in the end the house always wins. The electronic pull tab handle is about $1.3 billion, according to a Legislative Budget Office report

The money didn’t fall from a tree and definitely didn’t arise from productive activity. It was moved from a group of people — at least some of whom couldn’t afford to lose it — to other people. 

Who’s gambling in Minnesota?

The Department of Human Services contracted with Wilder Research on a 2020 report that is eye opening. 

The survey data revealed that 56,000 Minnesota adults — or 1.3% — are problem gamblers, which means they’ve lost control. Another 162,000 adults, or nearly 3.8%, are “at risk.” Taken together that’s 5.1% — more than 200,000 Minnesotans. 

Over one-quarter of adults in Minnesota “know someone whose gambling may be causing them financial difficulties; impacting their health; or damaging their personal, family or work relationships,” according to the report, whose authors conducted a survey of 8,512 respondents.  

More than one-in-five Minnesotans have themselves been negatively affected by the gambling behaviors of someone else they know personally. 

Like many societal problems, the most at risk from gambling addiction are people who can least afford it. Among people with a high school diploma, GED or less, 8.6% are either problem or at-risk gamblers. Among people who make $30,000 per year or less, it’s 7.2%. People of color are more than twice as likely to be problem gamblers as white Minnesotans. 

Most sinister of all: The state of Minnesota is playing the house with these poor suckers, selling a record $668.6 million in lottery tickets to them in 2020, as the Minnesota Lottery boasts on its website

So our economic system creates vast inequalities, and then we salve the wounds of poverty by giving people dreams, for a price. Call it a hope tax. 

(Yep, I play.)

Compared to other states, Minnesota has avoided the worst of the opioid crisis. But we are bigger drinkers than most other states, and according to a recent WalletHub study, we love to gamble. 

If you think gambling doesn’t belong in the same category as drugs and alcohol, then I encourage you to read the many studies that have shown that a gambling addict’s brain has been rewired, landing it in the addictions chapter of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is the bible of psychiatric disorders. 

Put simply, the reward and impulse control areas of the brain of a gambling addict get out of whack, similar to a person addicted to drugs or alcohol. 

And in some ways, gambling addiction can be worse. Gambling addicts have astounding rates of suicidal ideation and attempted and completed suicide. (See, for instance, this piece on research in the UK, which has about 8,500 gambling shops around the country.) 

A drink or drug binge can cost a few hundred dollars, and eventually the body shuts down. A gambler can spend an entire paycheck in a few hours and keep going, dipping into credit and retirement funds before doing the unthinkable — embezzlers often turn out to be problem gamblers. 

Terra Carbert borrowed from friends. “I told them lies. And I’m not a liar. But I was such a liar,” she says now. 

As Carbert can attest, we’re likely living among far more problem gamblers than we realize — the addiction creates shame and is often cloaked in secrecy.

And more than the money, there’s the lost time and relationships — problem gamblers are rarely good parents, friends or coworkers. 

We shouldn’t make gambling illegal. Like alcohol and drug prohibition, it’s a fool’s errand.

But we ought to have our eyes open about the effects, and try to ameliorate them with all the money we’re raking in. 

In 2020 we spent about $44 per Minnesotan on programs for substance use disorder, according to an analysis provided to me by the state Department of Human Services. On problem gambling, we spend a quarter per Minnesotan. As in, 25 cents. (Our social problems should not compete for money, so I’m not saying take money from one and give to the other.)

Gertrude Matemba-Mutasa, an assistant commissioner at DHS, told me the state is “hitting this from as many angles as we can so the education and understanding are out there,” including paid media. 

But there’s simply no way the state’s awareness campaign can match the millions of marketing dollars spent every year by an industry whose main objective is turning the players upside down and shaking everything out of their pockets. 

And, Minnesota has just one in-treatment facility for problem gamblers, with just 20 beds. 

The good news is that recovery is possible. 

After that fateful early morning nearly five years ago, Carbert, now 45, found a 12-step program. “I started going and made a plan and I went and I went and I went.”

She also discovered in therapy that she had reason to lose herself in the thrill of the action, rather than untangle the garotte wrapped around her heart. 

Her father committed suicide when she was 3, but she didn’t find out until she was a teenager. Not long after, Carbert was a young single mother, and her own mother died. 

In 2010, her maternal grandmother, with whom she had drawn close, died of cancer. A year later, Carbert and her sister discovered her stepfather dead. 

“There’s a lot of that in my story. A lot of death,” she said. 

But now there’s a lot of life. After a successful career as a corporate recruiter, she decided she needed a new path. 

So now she’s started a coaching business called “Ambitious Addicts” directed at women who are in recovery and want to keep pursuing dreams.

I asked Carbert what Minnesota can do about this emerging problem. 

She said we should consider a gambling court, which is like drug court but for problem gamblers, a promising tool in use in Las Vegas.  

She also said we need more in-patient treatment beds, more treatment and recovery options and outreach to Black, Indigenous and other people of color. 

“If you’re sitting on a pot of cash that came from gambling, maybe use the money to treat the harmful societal impacts of gambling addiction, and give resources not just to the gambler but their family,” she said. 

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-333-HOPE or get gambling help here

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and toddler son.

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