ST. PAUL — It started with parlay cards. It morphed into betting with a bookmaker.
Years later, Don Weinberger's compulsion to gamble had him skipping work to visit the casino. All the while, he kept his habit and the debt he accrued because of it from his wife. When the truth came to light it nearly tore his family apart.
It's now been more than two decades since Weinberger has gambled, something he attributes to his faith in God and Gamblers Anonymous, which he continues to be involved with today. But seated in a downtown St. Paul eatery on a recent Friday morning, he recalled clearly the mindset of his younger self and the many others affected by gambling addiction.
"The scourge of a compulsive gambler is that when you win, it's never enough," he said.
According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, or the NCPG, compulsive gambling affects approximately 2 million U.S. adults — roughly 1% of the U.S. adult population. A further 4 to 6 million are thought to be “problem gamblers” who do not necessarily meet the criteria for pathological gambling.
But less certain is the scope of gambling addiction in Minnesota. The most current data on the prevalence of the disorder in the state comes from an official survey conducted in 1994.
State agencies have been working on a new survey for several years and in 2018 commissioned the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation of St. Paul to take one. The contract for the study is for approximately $400,000, according to the Department of Human Services.
Helen Ghebre, a community capacity building team supervisor with the state human services department, said the findings of the survey are currently being reviewed and that a publicly available report on them is expected to be published before the end of February.
Conducted by mail over a period of several months in 2019, the survey sampled from a random pool of 35,000 Minnesotan households and included questions about gambling frequency and attitudes. Ghebre said the results will illustrate the rate and severity of problem gambling in Minnesota as well as the demographics it most effects.
"We are using this to better target where we direct resources and funding," she said.
Ghebre said she could not make preliminary comments on the findings of the survey because they are still being reviewed. She could not say why it took the agency until recently to conduct a follow-up to the 1994 survey, but added that agency leadership was supportive of the idea.
The department plans to take the surveys more regularly in the future, she said, roughly once every three to five years.
Until the new study is published, a survey more than 25 years old continues to be one of the few official sources on gambling addiction rates in Minnesota. That survey found approximately 4.4% of the state’s adults either show signs of problem gambling or have a pathological compulsion to gamble.
In a recent survey of its own, the NCPG estimated that gambling problems and addiction affected approximately 3.6% of Minnesotans in 2016, or about 152,000 people.
Even if only a small percentage of Minnesotans are affected by gambling problems, the amount of money they spend may not be insubstantial. In a separate report from 2018, the state human services department said that assuming problem gambling accounts for between 15% and 33% of gambling revenues, as it does in other states, then problem gamblers generated anywhere from $266 million to $585 million of Minnesota's gambling revenue in 2014.
Minnesota’s billion-dollar gambling industry does help to fund a range of government services as well as youth activities and scholarships. The Minnesota Gambling Control Board reported the state's gambling industry had a total of about $359 million after prize payouts to spend on wages, taxes, rent, charitable contributions and other lawful expenditures in fiscal year 2019.
The industry also contributes to state-funded options for inpatient and outpatient gambling addiction treatment. In 2016, the NCPG said that approximately 600 Minnesotans enrolled in such programs, which are supported in part by state lottery revenues, charitable gaming tax dollars and Native American gaming industry contributions.
According to that report, Minnesota ranked 14th in the U.S. in terms of "per capita public spending dedicated problem gambling services."
Gambling addiction and problem gambling affect people of all different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. But according to Brien Gleeson, an addictions counselor at the Mayo Clinic hospital in Eau Claire, Wis., some demographics appear to be more vulnerable than others.
"One particular population that we are more concerned about would be older folks, for a variety of reasons," he said.
Gleeson said that his patients tend to gamble most often at casinos. With more free time and retirement funds on hand, he said that some senior citizens find it difficult to resist their allure.
For some, the chance to socialize at a casino can be as enticing as the chance to win. An elderly couple might go to a casino, Gleeson said, as a way to spend time together.
Compulsive gambling manifests in a range of symptoms, Gleeson said, the most distinct of which is gambling to make back lost money.
"If you’re chasing your losses, you’re headed in the wrong direction," he said.
Gleeson said that many of his patients have successfully managed to cope with gambling addiction by themselves. Others, he said, turn to self-help groups like Gamblers Anonymous.
Gambling establishments themselves, he said, appear willing to help. Many casinos allow those who believe they have a gambling problem to voluntarily ban themselves from entry.
As it becomes less and less taboo to openly discuss drug and alcohol addiction, Gleeson said gambling addiction is starting to shed its stigma as well. Hopefully, he said, that will encourage more people affected by it to seek treatment.
But because money is still seen by some as impolite to talk about, financial planner and counselor Melanie Hardie said many are still unwilling to open up about the other ways they mismanage it.
Some psychologists have termed behaviors like money worshiping, compulsive buying and secretive spending as "money disorders." Unlike compulsive gambling, however, money disorders are not recognized as a clinical diagnosis by the American Psychological Association.
A former mental health counselor, Hardie today works at LifeWorks — a company headquartered in Atlanta that offers financial counseling to the employees of other businesses — and is an active member of the Minnesota chapter of the Financial Planning Association. In her view, mental health issues do not necessarily lead to money mismanagement so much as a lack of financial education does.
"Is it 'compulsive spending,'" she asked, "or a lack of knowledge?"
A bill introduced in the Minnesota Legislature last year proposed to make financial literacy a requirement for high school graduation but was not passed. Some educators objected to the measure, saying that the decision to mandate personal finance courses should be left to school districts, many of which already teach aspects of the subject in other courses.
Whatever their causes, poor spending and saving habits can quickly cascade. Hardie said the inability to pay off a heavy debt load, for example, can lead to a poor credit rating, which in turn can make it difficult if not impossible to obtain a mortgage or car loan.
To help break the cycle, some libraries and community centers have hosted free and low-cost classes on personal finance and credit repair. Some financial planners and non-profit organizations will occasionally offer to do pro bono work as well, Hardie said.
Older Minnesotans with money troubles, meanwhile, can call the Senior LinkAge Line for a referral to a financial counselor.
Like Gleeson, Hardie said she hopes that those who have mismanaged their money will be viewed more sympathetically in future and feel encouraged to ask for help.
"As long as it’s a taboo subject, we're not going to learn and develop and grow," she said.