It is often said that addiction knows no race, class or sex. Treatment centers from across the country confirm that addiction can affect anyone, from high-paid CEOs, doctors, people who work blue collar jobs, students, homeless veterans, and stay-at-home moms alike.
While it may be true that addiction can impact someone regardless of their race, gender, age, or profession, it’s also true that addressing addiction is much harder when you’re poor.
It’s a problem that has historical precedent. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, addiction to crack cocaine became a prevalent and visible problem in low income black communities, who at the same time were facing high rates of unemployment due to a decline in manufacturing jobs and discriminatory hiring and firing practices.
Today, as an opioid overdose crisis emerges, we find ourselves facing the same set of extenuating circumstances
“White America looks economically a lot more like black America in the 1990s: stable well-paying jobs are disappearing, replaced by lower-wage positions with far more uncertainty,” writes The Guardian’s Maia Szalavitz. “Criminalizing drug use, while proven not to work, remains the default.”
In order to understand and address the most recent public health crisis, we cannot ignore the socioeconomic challenges that are present in overcoming addiction.
“Though advocates like to claim that addiction is an equal opportunity destroyer,” Szalavitz continues, “in reality, it is far less likely to hit people who have stable, structured lives and decent employment than it is those whose lives are marked by uncertainty and lack of work.”
Research has shown that when the economy is stable, the middle class is flourishing, and economic inequality is reduced, addiction rates are significantly lower. Even those who choose to use addictive substances have been proven to statistically stop before the age of 30--even without treatment.
When unemployment, unstable employment, and income inequality increase, more people become at risk for dependency and addiction, and their chances of overcoming those obstacles at an early age declines. This is especially true given the cyclical nature of poverty.
There is abundant data that supports the correlation of addiction and socioeconomic status.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin addiction is over three times as common for individuals who make below $20,000 per year when compared to those who make over $50,000. Those who have a higher educational status are also less likely to experience addiction.
Additionally, research indicates that people who live in more socioeconomically balanced societies are less likely to use and abuse harmful substances. Those with large discrepancies between the rich and poor, such as the USA and the UK, have much higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse.
Furthermore, there is a large amount of data that shows that the addiction rate among those who are unemployed is nearly twice as high as those who have jobs. While some may argue that this due to is addiction-related loss of employment, research suggests that in many cases, unemployment actually precedes the addiction. Regardless of whether or not unemployment preceded or was a result of addiction, not having access to a stable income makes it far more difficult to recover or receive treatment from mental healthcare professionals.
The fact of the matter is, when decent jobs are unavailable and economic opportunity wanes, the effects of addiction become all the more severe and recovery becomes all the more difficult.
For decades now, the United States has been employing ineffective solutions to battling drug abuse epidemics. Several administrations have attempted to cut the drug supply by locking up dealers or restricting access to certain chemicals – and in doing so have never come close to solving the problem at its core. If we want to put a stop to debilitating addictions, we have to look more closely at what drives people to abuse substances in the first place. While there may be a lot of reasons that this happens, there’s no doubt that income inequality mustn’t be ignored moving forward.