Debtogenic Landscapes

Choice architectures and personal financeCome take a walk with me along Tottenham’s High Street in the north London Borough of Haringey. On leaving the train at Seven Sisters tube station you encounter a landscape that is a world away from a typical street scene in central London. Gone are the Starbucks coffee shops and Pizza Express restaurants, replaced by a mix of international money transfer centres and mini-marts. Haringey is actually one of the poorest districts in Great Britain: with low average household income and high rates of unemployment. There is, however, one thing that Haringey is a national leader in, and that is its concentration of bookmakers and gambling establishments. The district is home to a cluster of 72 betting shops, with one 300-metre stretch of road alone being occupied by nine bookmakers. It is, in some ways difficult to understand why the gaming industry should target poor areas like this – why not target the most affluent areas, where presumably the largest stakes could be waged? It appears, however, that betting shops do well in more deprived districts because poverty makes the attraction of even relatively small gambling gains much more enticing. This exploitative logic presumably also extends to the greater opportunities that the unemployed have to visit bookmakers throughout much of the day.   The concentration of betting shops in Haringey has rightly become a major concern for local MP David Lammy, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, and the local council.

The situation in Haringey, and what is being done to address the problem, raises important issues concerning choice architectures and behaviour change policies. Having recently visited Haringey, I believe that care needs to be taken when suggesting that a high concentration of gambling establishments leads to a kind of irresistible choice architecture for low income communities. There can be little doubt that the rise of ambient gambling environments, with their seductive advertising messages, makes it far easier for anyone to fall into the gambling habit – and the betting shops of Haringey were certainly doing a healthy trade when I passed them at mid afternoon. But resisting the spread of gaming gentrification through recourse to the impacts of such establishments on the behaviours of low income populations runs the real risk of (admittedly unwittingly) constructing a kind of irrational underclass, who are somehow unable to resist the temptation to gamble. This is precisely the problem that lies at the heart of government self-exclusion schemes, where problems gamblers can (in their more clear-thinking states) register to be excluded from betting-shops when temptation runs too high. My point is that we are all subject to the temptations to gamble, admittedly in very different ways and for varying reasons. The increasing spread of ambient gambling opportunities is thus a problem in medium and high- income communities, particularly when it targets younger members of the community. Further more, it is clear that if the gaming industry targets poor neighbourhood, other debt-inducing activities (including the use of credit cards, the promotion of expensive holidays, or loans for home improvements) can be found in most communities. We increasingly live in what I would describe as debtogenic landscapes: places that are specifically design to encourage us to spend beyond our means. Politicising these landscapes could provide a unifying movement that questions why credit, debt and gambling have become so necessary to so many people. It could also provide a way of connecting the important issues that are being raised in Haringey with a broader national discussion on the connections between poverty, a living wage, and the dangers of debt.  These are issues that can so easily get glossed over within the fairly narrow discussions of choice architectures and psychology that characterise the behaviour change debate.

Mark

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4 responses to “Debtogenic Landscapes

  1. In the very specific case of betting shops there is an interesting policy intersection. The most popular form of gambling in bookmakers in poorer areas is on fixed odds gaming machines – which are the pinnacle of the low stake, potential huge win enticement. When the last gambling legislation was drafted, there was a well meant attempt to protect poorer areas from this by restricting each establishment to a maximum of 4 machines.

    What the legislation didn’t account for was that the profit from these machines is so big, that it is financially supportable for William Hill, Ladbrokes, Coral etc to open stores purely and simply to increase the number of fixed odds machines in a given catchment. The sports betting (and particularly horse racing) is barely profitable because of taxes and dues, and the ease of internet betting – it’s kept in the stores for the sake of tradition more than anything.

    The result of this policy misadventure is that in next weeks retail space survey, Bookmakers are the only industry that is actually increasing the amount of retail space that they currently hold – in cases like Haringey and other poor areas they are opening stores next door or adjacent to each other – just so they can cram the fixed odds machines in.

    Although the area I represent (for now at least) could in no way be described as poor, the recent work that the council has done setting up a Credit Union to provide, using SureStart centres to help educate parents about budgeting and the dangers of malignant forms of lending like payday loans or doorstep lenders, as well as the proliferation of gambling establishments, and the psychological effects of long term redundancy/unemployment has demonstrated to me that narrow debates about choice architecture and the psychology of it are limited and limiting; and that politicising these things might provide some unifying method of getting underneath it all.

    I would be interested to know exactly what you would mean by ‘politicizing’ though….

  2. I wonder what this scene looks like today? Post riot?

  3. Pingback: The Gambler | Transforming Behaviours

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