Addiction and the Low-Income American Community

More people suffer from drug use disorders in lower-income communities than in the middle or upper classes. This is most likely due to the fact that people living in poverty are surrounded by more "risk factors" than their middle and upper class peers.
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Several stereotypes exist within American society concerning poverty and addiction. Many people believe that lower-income communities rely on drugs and alcohol to cope with the stress of day-to-day living.

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Alcohol addiction and drug abuse are issues that primarily affect people of lower socioeconomic status. It is also common for people to believe that drug and alcohol abuse is responsible for creating a “lower-class” of unemployable people. 

This leads some to believe  that addiction is a “character defect” or “moral flaw.” They think that the lower-income class is filled with indecent and unethical people.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), along with the majority of modern doctors and scientists, classifies addiction as a chronic disease that affects the brain. It is not a character flaw or moral failure, but a progressive disorder that affects people of all socioeconomic statuses.

Unfortunately, data tells us that addiction is more common among low-income American communities than others. There is no scientific evidence that can provide a direct reason for this correlation.

However, scientists know that genetic, environmental, and developmental factors determine a person’s risk for developing a substance use disorder. Consequently, the more risks they have, the higher the chance that using drugs will lead to addiction.

A person’s likelihood to develop a substance use disorder depends on many aspects, including:

  • DNA
  • Family history
  • Mental health
  • Trauma, abuse, or neglect
  • Education
  • Race
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Drug Abuse in Poverty

Evidence shows that more people suffer from drug use disorders in lower-income communities than in the middle or upper classes. However, addiction can affect people born into any circumstance. 

Why does this correlation exist?

The most commonly accepted hypothesis is that living in poverty increases the number of risk factors a person is surrounded by. A risk factor is anything that increases your chances of developing a drug use disorder. Here are the most common risk factors that affect people of lower-income American communities:

  • Lower Social Support Levels. Many low-wage jobs require long shifts at odd hours. Many low-income Americans must work two or more jobs to afford basic living. This makes it challenging to maintain healthy relationships with friends and family and often leads to feelings of loneliness — a common characteristic in people who suffer from drug use disorder.
  • Increased Stress Levels. Stress is a well-known risk factor when it comes to substance abuse and relapse. Low-income Americans often deal with very high-stress levels because they are worried about affording shelter, food, and other necessities. 
  • Decreased Self-Esteem. Individuals who feel like they are failing due to their socioeconomic situation are more likely to feel shame, guilt, and low self-worth. These people are more vulnerable to developing substance abuse disorders.
  • Increased Hopelessness. If someone is spending the majority of their time focused on how to survive, it can be difficult to think of a positive future. Typical desires — such as attending college, traveling, getting married, or buying a home — can seem impossible. This leads to feelings of hopelessness, which may increase a person’s likelihood to develop an addiction.

Decreased Access to Healthcare. Approximately 30 million people in the U.S. are uninsured, which means they have little to no access to affordable health care. Mental health issues, chronic illnesses, and other untreated diseases and disorders can often lead to self-medication, a primary cause of addiction.

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Unemployment and Addiction

Currently, there is limited research on the correlation between unemployment and addiction. However, studies have found that:

  • Hazardous, binge, and heavy drinking is more common among the unemployed.
  • Unemployed people are more likely to be smokers and users of illegal or prescription drugs.
  • Unemployed individuals are more likely to have alcohol or drug use disorders.
  • Unemployment is a risk factor for substance use and the development of substance use disorders.
  • The current research available provides limited information about preexisting conditions that may also increase a person’s risk factors.
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Financial Troubles and Addiction

Addiction and other substance use disorders can cause serious financial troubles, especially for people of low-income. An addiction to cigarettes, alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs can end up costing a person or family a large percentage of their monthly income. 

This decreases the likelihood that a person will be able to achieve financial success, which in turn increases their risk factors for addiction due to their low-income. This cycle can make it very difficult for people of low-income to overcome their substance use disorder.

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Low-Income Addiction Treatment

Substance abuse disorder is a serious illness that needs to be treated by a professional. Unfortunately, many people in low-income communities do not have access to education about free or low-income treatment options. If you or someone you know needs to find a free or low-income addiction treatment facility, here are some places to start:

SAMHSA

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They work to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on American communities. You can use their online search tool to find treatment facilities confidentially and anonymously. 

State-Funded Free Drug Rehab Program

Many states provide funding for drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers. Those with no insurance or low-income can access these treatment centers. 

Before treatment, these centers usually need proof of:

  • Official residence in the state
  • Lack of income or insurance
  • Legal residency in the United States
  • Addiction status, or need for intervention

There may be other requirements before the individual can access treatment. SAMHSA maintains a directory of all Single State Agencies (SSAs) on their website.

Faith-Based Rehabilitation

Several faith-based groups operate drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. Larger ones, such as the Christian Salvation Army, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Celebrate Recovery can be found around the country. There are also vast amounts of local organizations that provide a variety of services. Further, you can find secular recovery programs such as SMART Recovery.

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Resources

NIDA. (2018, June 6). Understanding Drug Use and Addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-use-addiction

Fitzgerald, Hiram & Zucker, Robert. (1994). Socioeconomic status and alcoholism: The contextual structure of developmental pathways to addiction.

“Poverty and Addiction Relationship.” St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, 11 Sept. 2019, stjosephinstitute.com/understanding-the-relationship-between-poverty-and-addiction/.

Henkel, Dieter. (2011). Unemployment and Substance Use: A Review of the Literature (1990-2010). Current drug abuse reviews. 4. 4-27. 10.2174/1874473711104010004.

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Updated on: December 1, 2020
Author
Michael Bayba
About
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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