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Updated on November 19, 2021

Addiction and the Low-Income American Community

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 daily life.

It's also common for people to believe that alcohol and drug abuse is creating a “lower class” of unemployable people.

Some even conclude that addiction is a “character defect” or “moral flaw.” They think that lower-income people are naturally more likely to be indecent and unethical.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), along with most modern doctors and scientists, classify addiction as a chronic disease affecting the brain. It is not a character flaw or moral failure, but a disorder affecting people of all walks of life.

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

Scientists do know that genetics, environment, and other factors determine a person’s risk for 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

Drug Abuse in Poverty

Evidence shows that more people suffer from substance use disorder 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 addiction.

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, which can lead to loneliness. Loneliness is common among people who suffer from addiction.

Increased stress levels

Stress is a well-known risk factor when it comes to substance abuse and relapse. Low-income Americans often worry about affording shelter, food, and other essentials. This can lead to increased stress.

Decreased self-esteem

People struggling with poverty are more likely to feel shame, guilt, and low self-worth. These feelings are risk factors for substance abuse.

Increased hopelessness

Spending most of one's time thinking about how to survive can lead to feelings of hopelessness. Typical desires — such as attending college, traveling, getting married, or buying a home — can seem impossible. This can lead to despair, increasing a person’s likelihood of addiction.

Lack of 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 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 unemployment increases the chances of:

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Financial Troubles and Addiction

Addiction can cause serious financial troubles, especially for low-income people. 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.

Addiction Resources for Low-Income People

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:


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, include Christian Salvation Army, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Celebrate Recovery.

You can also find secular recovery programs such as SMART Recovery, as well as local organizations in your area.


  1. NIDA. "Understanding Drug Use and Addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse."
  2. Fitzgerald, Hiram & Zucker, Robert. . "Socioeconomic status and alcoholism: The contextual structure of developmental pathways to addiction."
  3. Poverty and Addiction Relationship.” St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, 11 Sept. 2019.
  4. Henkel, Dieter. . "Unemployment and Substance Use: A Review of the Literature (1990-2010)." Current drug abuse reviews. 4. 4-27. 10.2174/1874473711104010004.
  5. Grinspoon, Peter. “Poverty, Homelessness, and Social Stigma Make Addiction More Deadly.” Harvard Health, 2021.
  6. O’Higgins, Kathleen. “Review of Literature and Policy on the Links Between Poverty and Drug Abuse” The Economic & Social Research Institute.

Related Pages

Addiction and the Low-Income American Community

Addiction Resources for American Communities

Addiction Resources for American Communities

The LGBTQ+ Community and Addiction

Addiction Resources for American Communities

Substance Abuse & Addiction in the Elderly

Addiction Resources for American Communities

Homelessness and Addiction

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