Drug addiction and poverty
About 35 million people suffer from drug addiction worldwide. For countless families, this illness goes hand in hand with a cycle of poverty. Many factors fuel drug addiction including unemployment, mental illness and financial status.

Poverty’s Role in Drug Usage and Abuse

Impoverished communities face significantly higher rates of addiction. Financial instability fosters stress, increasing the likelihood of addictive behaviors. Heroin addiction illustrates this link. People making less than $20,000 per year are three times more likely to have an addiction to heroin compared to those making $50,000. Beyond that, people with greater financial means face an easier recovery journey. They are less likely to suffer from severe, long-term addiction than those in poverty. Lack of education, emotional instability and discrimination all heighten the risk of addiction. However, two factors are keys to understanding the link between addiction and poverty.


Unemployment is a key driver of drug addiction. Impoverished working-age men are 18% more likely to face joblessness as poverty and unemployment form a harmful cycle. The cycle begins with unemployment heightening one’s risk of poverty. Then, once in poverty, job hunting becomes harder due to economic bias, challenges in earning a college degree, racial bias and a lack of job infrastructure in low-income areas. This cycle of unemployment-induced stress and anxiety increases the chance of falling into drug addiction.

Mental Illness

Mental illness increases the risk of drug addiction, and poverty elevates the risk of mental illness. Using data from Great Britain, the Mental Health Foundation concluded that people living in the lowest 20% of incomes are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest 20%. One can explain this through higher stigma and societal trauma, unemployment and fragmented relationships in low-income environments. In addition, poverty undermines access to mental health care and support. This connection is dangerous as population surveys in the U.S. found that half of those who experience mental illnesses will develop drug addictions.

Addiction Increases the Risk of Poverty

Once someone has a substance use disorder, it can be extremely difficult to achieve financial success or maintain a stable economic status. Three main factors can explain this relationship between addiction and poverty.

  1. Addicts use some portion of their earnings on drugs. While the cost of substances differs, when added over time, even the smallest expense can affect a person’s financial well-being, especially as tolerance levels increase.
  2. Drug addiction can cause the addict to miss work, perform poorly and fail drug tests. These all threaten job security and employment status.
  3. Substance use increases the risk of costly medical emergencies and long-term conditions. Depending on the extremity of the problem, some medical visits can leave a person in financial debt, threatening economic stability.

Fighting Addiction Means Fighting Poverty and Vice Versa

Because addiction and poverty inextricably connect, viable solutions must take this into account. Countries throughout the world are fighting back against these issues in unique ways. One solution that countries like the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland pioneered is the decriminalization or legalization of drugs. This method recognizes drug addiction as an illness, opening the doors for better regulation of drug safety and support services such as psychiatry, housing and employment. The overall strategy of legalization shows promise. Since legalizing drugs, Portugal saw an 80% reduction in overdose deaths. Additionally, overall drug use declined. Switzerland’s decriminalization policy corresponded with an 80% reduction in first-time heroin use.

With an awareness of the interconnected relationship between addiction and poverty, policymakers can move toward real solutions to break this destructive cycle.

– Haylee Ann Ramsey-Code
Photo: Wikimedia Commons