Maryland's poor and minority communities are likely to bear the heaviest burden if state lawmakers adopt Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan to allow slot machines at four racetracks, a new study suggests.
The study by researchers at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, found that the rate of problem and pathological gambling among poor people is more than three times that of the most affluent segments of society.
"The study provides support for the notion that lower socio-economic-status Americans are being disproportionately affected by gambling," researchers wrote.
The report's findings appear to back the view of gambling critics who argue that slots serve as a regressive tax on the poor.
Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for Ehrlich, discounted the report and maintained that slots pose fewer problems than other forms of gambling.
The study, published in an academic journal last month, was based on a national telephone survey of 2,630 U.S. citizens about their gambling habits.
"The rate of pathological or problem gambling among the highest fifth or our sample by socioeconomic status was 1.6 percent; in the lowest fifth, it was 5.3 percent," the study said. "This trend was highly statistically significant."
John W. Welte, a senior research associate at the university and one of the study's authors, said the report confirms "something that has long been suspected."
It reveals that problem gambling among the poor has spread along with the rapid expansion of casino-style gambling into new venues around the country, Welte said.
In 1975, studies found gambling was more concentrated among young, white, affluent males, Welte said. But that has changed markedly.
"Gambling participation has particularly grown among the elderly and lower socioeconomic groups," the study stated. "It appears that the increased availability of gambling opportunities in our society has led to the 'democratization' of gambling."
The survey found that minorities who gamble tend to develop more problems with compulsive gambling behavior.
"Blacks were less likely to have gambled than whites, but blacks who did gamble exceeded other racial groups in frequency ... and extent of gambling involvement," the report said. "Blacks, Hispanics and Asians were more likely to be problem gamblers than whites."
The study did not address the reasons why the poor gamble their way into trouble more often than others, but Welte said several factors could be at work. He said the poor are likely to be less sophisticated about financial matters and don't necessarily understand how "the odds of gambling will grind you down."
Moreover, Welte said, people in desperate circumstances might see placing a bet as one of the few ways to possibly solve an immediate financial dilemma.
"It's a regressive source of government revenue," Welte said. "It comes disproportionately from poor people."
In Maryland, the problems could be compounded because three of the racetracks in line to get slots - Pimlico, Laurel Park and Rosecroft - are near poor, urban populations.
Welte said that new research his group is doing, but which has not been published, found that pathological gambling rates are twice as high for people who live within 10 miles of a casino compared to those who live farther away.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and an opponent of slots, said the study points up a major flaw in Ehrlich's plan.
"The people who have been given the least consideration are the people whose communities are going to bear the burden of these facilities," he said. "Our racetracks are located different from the ones in Delaware. Our tracks are located right in the middle of communities."
Schurick noted that Ehrlich proposes to increase state funding for gambling addiction treatment from $20,000 a year to $500,000 and generally dismissed the study's findings.
"These studies often conflict with one another," Schurick said. "We've seen other studies that suggest slot machine gambling is one of the least problematic options of all forms of gambling. ... The state of Maryland already sanctions some of the most regressive and addictive forms of gambling there is, the [lottery] numbers games."
When asked for a copy of a study that says slot machine gambling poses fewer problems than other forms, Schurick said he would have to dig one up. However, he did not provide such studies and did not respond to a follow-up request.
Some experts were skeptical of Schurick's claim.
"It's outrageous," said Valerie Lorenz, director of the Compulsive Gambling Center Inc. in Baltimore. "Slots are the most quickly addictive form of gambling."
If Maryland does allow slot machines at its tracks, most of the money is likely to come from the pockets of Marylanders who live near the racetrack casinos, experts say.
A study by Christiansen Capital Advisors LLC, a leading gambling industry analyst, on the potential of Maryland racetrack casinos predicted that the overwhelming majority of dollars that would be gambled at those locations would come from residents who live within a 25-mile radius.
Christiansen forecast that at Pimlico, about $241 million of the $314 million in expected revenue from slots - about 77 percent - will come from people who live within 25 miles.
The percentage of local money spent at Laurel Park was projected at about 95 percent.
About $397 million of $503 million expected to be taken in at Rosecroft would come from within 25 miles, the analyst said.
Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.
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