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Decline and Fall of the Boardwalk Empire

By Gregg Sangillo

Deborah Figart and Ellen Mutari. Photo credit: Amanda Stevenson Lupke.

Deborah Figart and Ellen Mutari. Photo credit: Amanda Stevenson Lupke.

2014 was a harsh year for Atlantic City, New Jersey. Four casinos closed, and 8,000 workers in that industry lost their jobs. Beyond those shiny neon lights, Atlantic City isn't just a resort for out-of-town visitors. It's a community of hard-working people trying to support their families.

Two alums of American University's Economics Department, Deborah Figart (CAS/Ph.D. '86) and Ellen Mutari (CAS/Ph.D. '95), chronicled some of those personal stories in their thoroughly-researched 2015 book, Just One More Hand: Life in the Casino Economy.

"There are a lot of sexy studies on the gambling industry, looking at how to win or the addictive behaviors of gaming. But very few people at all have studied the workers who make this industry run," says Figart.

On October 12, Figart and Mutari will speak at AU as part of the Social Justice Colloquium Series sponsored by the Anthropology Department.

Chasing the New Economy

In an interview, Figart and Mutari discuss how regional economies are influenced by global competition. While living in Michigan in the 1990s, they witnessed the decline of the automotive industry. As they relocated to southern New Jersey later that decade, Atlantic City was at its peak. Similar to auto companies in their heyday, casinos provided stable, middle class jobs for people who might not have college degrees. "It seemed like we were moving from the old economy to the new economy," Mutari says.

But circa 2006, when Figart and Mutari began this project, the Jersey Shore city started looking more like contemporary Southeast Michigan. The Atlantic City jobs became "part-time, seasonal, and didn't provide as many benefits as they used to provide," Mutari explains. "Wages were now stagnant."

There were nearly 40,000 people working in the Atlantic City casino industry in the late 1990s, and almost half of those jobs have since disappeared.

Boxes on the Sand

Legalized gambling used to be novel entertainment, with Atlantic City and Las Vegas being the major casino hubs in the United States. Yet as a growing industry and tax-revenue source for cash-strapped states, casinos have proliferated across the country. Should Atlantic City officials have anticipated this competition and developed new attractions besides gambling?

"It's not that the Atlantic City casinos haven't been trying to bring people to the shore for all kinds of things. Structurally, though, the way that they decided to build the casinos and run the casinos was boxes on the sand," Figart says. "There's a beautiful boardwalk there, the first one in the nation. There's a beautiful ocean there. There are amusement park rides. But the whole industry in Atlantic City was structured to keep people inside the boxes."

"They became complacent for a long time with the model of bringing slot machine players in on buses, to play for the day and go home," says Mutari. "And that also meant that there were limited ripple effects for the citizens in the local community."

City officials can't just snap their fingers and generate new business, Mutari adds. Despite state-regulation, casinos are run by private sector companies—the same ones opening up casinos in other states.

Numbers of a Balance Sheet

One of the book's themes is how problems in the casino economy are indicative of larger trends in the U.S. economy. For instance, casino workers have complained about faceless, outsourced corporate ownership.

"These casinos are no longer owned by the colorful personalities who really knew the workers and walked the floors and got to know people. Now they're owned a lot by holding companies, hedge funds, private equity firms. The companies themselves are global," says Mutari. "It's in fact this sense that their bosses have become outsiders. We kept hearing people say, 'We're just numbers on a balance sheet. The bean counters are coming up with these policies from far away.' They no longer felt like their bosses knew who they were."

The authors contend that private equity firms taking over some casinos—such as Caesars—implement drastic cost-cutting measures to squeeze out greater profits in a short period of time.

A Journalistic, Interdisciplinary Account

Figart and Mutari are both labor economists and professors at Stockton University in New Jersey. They are not only co-authors, but life partners who got married in 2014. When they first met in Washington, D.C., Figart was a graduate student at AU and Mutari was working at the Business and Professional Women's Foundation. Figart got her AU Ph.D. in economics in 1986, and Mutari later earned her AU doctorate in the same subject in 1995.

They praise the CAS Economics Department for teaching them to place economies in a larger historical context, as opposed to just studying supply and demand laws. They took this approach while writing Just One More Hand, which is very much a journalistic, interdisciplinary account. "We are very appreciative of the broad training we got in political economy from the Economics Department, because we think it makes us better economists and therefore it made this a better book," says Figart.

Revival at the Shore

As Bruce Springsteen once sang about this great city, maybe everything that dies someday comes back. And, like the fictional characters in so many Springsteen songs, Atlantic City workers are trying to endure though hard times. While conducting 35 interviews, Figart and Mutari developed enormous respect for casino workers. "I was so moved by their struggles to balance work and family," Figart says. They work late-hour weekend shifts, and many of those jobs take considerable skill. (Being a Blackjack dealer while someone loses a lot of money is quite difficult.)

Is there still hope for Atlantic City? Figart and Mutari believe it's possible to right the ship. "I have reason to be optimistic because New York rebounded from near bankruptcy in the 1970s. Pittsburgh rebounded from the [collapse of the] steel industry. Detroit is rebounding from terrible bankruptcy. There are a lot of ideas out there, and a lot of really good and smart people working on this," Figart says. "But there's no one magic bullet."