How Does Poverty Affect Drug Abuse Rates?

Kreed Kleinkopf
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August 13, 2022

Poverty is one of the most significant predictors of drug abuse and addiction. Individuals who live in poverty are more likely to turn to drugs to cope with the stress and challenges of their lives. At the same time, drug abuse can lead to further poverty, chronic illness, and mental health problems.

2019 study found that most opioid overdose cases across 17 states were concentrated in zip codes with lower education and median household income as well as higher rates of unemployment and poverty. Another UNODC study dubbed Socioeconomic Characteristics and Drug Use Disorders found that those who belong to disadvantaged groups had the highest relative level of risk of suffering from an addiction. This could be due to homelessness, social exclusion and inequality, and mental health problems that are also synonymous with poverty.

While poverty is not the only factor for substance abuse in the United States, it is certainly important. People living in poverty are more likely to be predisposed to risk factors linked to higher rates of substance abuse. They may also live in poverty-stricken areas often home to illegal drug activity, making drugs more accessible.

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The link between poverty and drug abuse

The link between poverty and drug abuse is complex and multi-layered. Poverty can both lead to drug abuse and be a consequence of it.

How Poverty Leads to Drug Abuse

There are several ways that poverty increases the likelihood of drug abuse. For example, people who grow up in poverty may be more likely to associate with others who use drugs, making them more likely to develop a substance abuse problem. Biological factors are also at play, as people who live in poverty are more likely to experience chronic stress, which can alter brain chemistry and make someone more vulnerable to addiction. Financial issues can be a leading source of stress for many younger adults.

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Here's a quick look at some of the ways poverty can contribute to drug abuse:

  • Stress: Financial problems can be incredibly stressful, and individuals who live in poverty often experience much higher stress levels than those who do not. This stress can come from financial struggles, poor housing conditions, violence, and more. Many people turn to drugs as a way to cope with this stress.
  • Mental health: Poverty is also linked to mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Individuals suffering from mental health problems are more likely to turn to drugs to self-medicate. This can lead to addiction, which further exacerbates mental illness.
  • Anxiety: Besides mental health problems, poverty can also cause anxiety. This is because individuals who live in poverty often worry about things like being able to pay for food or shelter or whether they will be able to keep a job. This worry can lead to anxiety, leading to drug abuse as a way to cope.
  • Lack of a strong social support network: People living in poverty may not have friends or family to turn to when times are tough. That's because all their energy is focused on making ends meet. This can lead to feelings of isolation, which can trigger drug abuse.
  • Decreased access to health care: Poverty can lead to decreased access to health care, both physical and mental. This is because many individuals who live in poverty cannot afford health insurance. This lack of access can lead to mental health problems going untreated, resulting in drug abuse.
  • Hopelessness: Poverty can also lead to feelings of hopelessness. This is because individuals who live in poverty often feel like they will never be able to escape their poverty cycle. This hopelessness can lead to drug abuse as a way to cope.
  • Social stigma: There is a lot of stigma surrounding poverty. This stigma can lead to individuals who live in poverty feeling like they are not worth help. This can then lead to drug abuse as a way to cope with these feelings.
  • Homelessness: People experiencing homelessness often turn to drugs as a way to cope with the stress of their situation. This is because drugs can provide a temporary escape from the reality of being homeless. However, this escape is often short-lived and can lead to addiction.

How Drug Abuse Can Lead to Poverty

Poverty and drug abuse often go hand-in-hand. Drug use can also lead to poverty in different ways.

  1. First, they can interfere with a person's ability to maintain steady employment. Many employers require drug tests as a condition of employment, and those who use drugs are more likely to lose their jobs or be less productive at work. This can lead to a downward spiral in which someone is unable to keep up with bills or support their family, eventually leading to poverty.
  2. Second, drugs can be expensive. Those who abuse drugs often spend large amounts of money on them, which can strain finances and lead to debt.
  3. Finally, drugs can lead to criminal activity. Those addicted to drugs may resort to stealing or selling drugs to get the money they need to support their habit. This can lead to a criminal record, making it difficult to find stable housing or employment, further exacerbating poverty.
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Promoting Recovery by Treating the Root Causes of Addiction

Individuals struggling with addiction often need help addressing the underlying causes of their drug abuse. This may include treatment for addiction and mental health problems. Treatment facilities should also address underlying issues causing the addiction. This includes things like providing:

  • Job skills training 
  • Resources for affordable housing offered by state housing and urban development programs
  • Access to community-based assistance programs for low-income individuals in substance abuse treatment

Treating the root causes of addiction gives individuals a better chance of achieving long-term recovery. This, in turn, can help break the cycle of poverty and addiction. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please reach out for help. There are many resources available to those who need them.

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