The relationship between addiction and poverty is complicated. Lower income people are slightly more likely to struggle with drug or alcohol abuse, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that poverty causes addiction. In some cases, financial troubles are the result of a substance use disorder.
Poverty Increases Addiction Risk Factors
There are several ways in which financial struggles increase the risk of a person developing a substance use disorder:
- Poverty increases stress. Stress is well recognized as a risk factor for substance abuse and relapse after treatment. Worrying about how to afford shelter, food, and other basic needs causes a tremendous amount of stress. When you’re struggling to make ends meet, there is a great temptation to turn to drugs or alcohol to temporarily escape from your problems.
- Poverty increases feelings of hopeless. When meeting daily expenses is difficult, dreams of attending college, buying a home, opening a business, or traveling the world seem impossible. Feeling as though you are powerless over your own future creates a vulnerability to substance abuse.
- Poverty decreases self-esteem. In a culture that values material possessions and financial success, being poor can feel like a moral failing. This can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and diminished self-worth. According to Psychology Today, people struggling with low self-esteem have an increased vulnerability to developing substance use disorders.
- Poverty decreases social support. Having the emotional support of friends and family helps people cope with difficult situations in their lives. However, lower income adults are less likely to have strong social support networks simply because they are expending all of their energy on trying to survive from day to day. For example, a UCLA survey found that lower income adults are less likely to be married even though they value marriage just as much as their higher income peers.
- Poverty decreases access to healthcare. Although the number of uninsured adults has decreased in recent years, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation found that 45 percent of uninsured adults lacked coverage simply because the cost was too high. Despite the fact that most of these individuals had at least one working adult in the family, 1 in 5 admitted to foregoing recommended medical treatment due to cost. Access to preventative health care is also severely limited for members of this group. Untreated mental health conditions or chronic illnesses that are poorly controlled can lead to the use of drugs or alcohol to self-medicate symptoms.
One frequently cited example of how poverty affects addiction risk is the Appalachian opioid epidemic. Stretching from the Southern Tier of New York to northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, the Appalachian region of the United States has struggled with widespread poverty since the early 1900s. The majority of the available jobs are physically demanding, carrying a high risk of injuries despite their relatively low wages. Residents who begin taking opioids to cope with chronic pain from their employment-related injuries often find themselves spiraling into addiction. The effects of substance abuse make it nearly impossible to keep working, thus perpetuating financial struggles.
Addiction Can Cause People to Slip into Poverty
It’s important to remember that people with substance use disorders don’t necessarily develop an addiction simply because they are poor. Someone who is solidly middle class can easily slip into poverty as the result of an untreated drug or alcohol addiction.
As an addiction develops, it becomes increasingly likely that a person will have problems performing at work. This might include arriving late, missing shifts, failing to meet project deadlines, or getting into arguments with colleagues. Eventually, this can lead to job loss.
Being terminated for performance issues will make it harder to find another job. This increases the overall stress in the person’s life and provides an incentive to engage in criminal activity to fund continued substance abuse.
Middle class individuals can also slip into addiction-related poverty by selling assets or dipping into retirement savings to buy drugs or alcohol. Untreated addiction impairs judgement and critical thinking skills, which can lead someone who is normally very financially responsible to burn through decades of accumulated wealth in just a short time.
Promoting Recovery by Treating the Root Causes of Addiction
No two people with substance use disorders are exactly alike. To promote a lasting recovery, it’s vital that treatment plans address the underlying issues contributing to addiction. This could include providing job skills training, affordable housing resources, or access to community-based assistance programs for low-income individuals in addiction to detox and substance abuse counseling.
By working to heal the mind, body, and spirit, St. Joseph Institute helps clients move towards a future free from the burden of addiction. With personalized care, you can regain control of your life.
By Dana Hinders