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Addiction and Poverty: Is There Really a Correlation?



There’s a misconception out there that drug addicts, regardless of whether it’s prescription drugs, illegal drugs or alcohol, are poor, uneducated and homeless. But the truth is, that’s just not true. Most people struggling with addiction live in a home, have a job and have at least some level of education. What causes or leads someone to be addicted or use drugs has more to do with their genetics, environmental influences, mental health, education, stress and parental substance abuse.

Although there is not a causation between poverty and drug use, there is a correlation. Why? It mostly has to do with the stress that poverty causes. The St. Joseph Institute of Addiction says:

  • 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 can lead someone to use drugs, but drug use can also lead someone into poverty. There are many middle class and upper class individuals who have fallen into poverty because of their drug use. “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” (St Joseph Institute of Addiction). And once in poverty, they face the same issues that others in poverty do and often are unable to escape.

Poverty is not a determining factor of drug use, however, someone who lives in poverty is more likely to use drugs than someone who can adequately provide for all their needs. Although we do not condone drug use, we are always willing to help anyone, regardless of their circumstances, escape poverty.

Drug use and addiction can damage the lives of anyone. If you or someone you know needs helps beating their addiction, call the SAMSHA’s free hotline.


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