Poverty and Drug Use

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Poverty and Drug Use

Do the poor use drugs more frequently than other economic groups? While many people would answer "yes" to that question, research indicates that a lack of money alone does not increase the chances that a person will use drugs. The relationship between poverty and drug use is more complicated. Beyond the lack of money, poverty leads to certain attitudes, behaviors, and life conditions. These same attitudes and conditions can contribute to drug use.

What Is Poverty?

In the United States, national poverty data are calculated using the official U.S. Bureau of the Census definition of poverty. This definition establishes a poverty threshold. If a family has an income level below that threshold, the family is considered to be poor. The census compares a family's cash income before taxes with that poverty threshold, which adjusts for family size and composition. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than 31 million people(11.3%) lived in poverty in the United States. An even higher percentage of these were children and teens: 16.2 percent of people under age 18 lived in poverty.

Poverty is not only a lack of sufficient income or material possessions. It is also a condition in which people lack prestige and have less access to resources. The poor often have different lifestyles and different values from those of people not living in poverty. The conditions that poor people often cope with may include: unemployment or off-and-on employment, low-status and low-skill jobs, unstable family and relationships, low involvement in the community, a sense of being isolated from society, low ambition, and feelings of helplessness. Many people living in poverty are divorced, are single parents, or have unhappy marriages. They tend to have higher rates of dropping out of school, arrest, and mental disorders. Because of limited access to health care, they are more likely to suffer from poor physical health than are people considered middle class or above.

Many sociologists have written about the problem of poverty, and a great deal of their writings focus on the idea of an American underclass. This underclass is thought to be caught in a cycle of poverty affecting several generations of families. Sociologists often describe these families as being isolated from mainstream society, living in urban ghettos, and being at risk for drug use. But other sociologists view poverty from another perspective. They observe that only a small proportion of poor people lead lives fitting this description. Many poor people are poor for only a short time. These people live not only in ghettos but in all regions of the United States, rural as well as urban, and they are of all age and ethnic groups.

Drug Use and Related Problems

Sociologists and others have had difficulties collecting valid information about poverty and drug use. Surveys of drug users do not always present an accurate picture. For example, some individuals will not reveal the severity of their drug problem or the severity of their poverty. Some information on the drug-using population comes from treatment programs or outreach services. But because not all individuals with drug abuse problems make use of such programs or services, they go uncounted. Many studies focus on drugs more likely to be used by the poor, such as crack cocaine and heroin, and not on drugs such as marijuana and cocaine that are more likely to be used by the middle and upper classes. All of these factors contribute to an inaccurate picture of drug use as occurring mainly among the poor.

Despite these obstacles to collecting valid information, researchers have reached some conclusions about drug use among the poor, especially the extreme poor—the homeless. The homeless do appear to be at higher risk for drug abuse, and some findings suggest that drugs may now play a larger role than alcohol in causing homelessness. Researchers have also found that the homeless population is no longer mainly older, white males. Women now make up a large portion of the homeless, and among them are many drug users.

Mental health problems are a related issue in the study of extreme poverty. Studies have found a high rate of mental health problems among homeless substance abusers. Individuals with mental health problems may use illegal drugs to medicate themselves in an attempt to feel better. One reason for this kind of drug use may be that the homeless do not have access to health care, or do not know how to take advantage of available government or charity programs. If drugabusing homeless individuals received treatment for their mental health problems, some of them might be able to find stable housing and jobs and connect with family. They might also be more likely to stay in drug-treatment programs.

The risk of HIV infection among drug users who live in poverty is also an issue of increasing concern. Youths with mental illness are at particular risk for HIV infection. These youths are more likely to engage in such risky behavior as prostitution and unprotected sex, drug dealing, and drug use by injection. When drug users live in poverty, they often lack access to treatment programs. Private inpatient and outpatient treatment can cost thousands of dollars. Programs funded by the government have long waiting lists for admission. Government policy efforts should try to ensure that lack of money does not bar someone from participating in prevention and treatment programs.

Social-service professionals should also make special efforts to reach homeless youths, who are at high risk of drug abuse. Necessary services include outreach and sheltering services, substance abuse treatment, counseling, and HIV prevention programs. Unfortunately, many youths who engage in risky behavior do not seek traditional services or programs. Consequently, those most in need may receive the least services.

see also Families and Drug Use; Homelessness; Risk Factors for Substance Abuse.