Addiction and Income: What Is the Connection?

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In Group - Addiction - The Hills

In this post, we tackle the complex interaction between addiction and income level. Does low income cause addiction? Or is addiction something that everyone can run into if they’re not careful? First, we’ll set the scene by explaining in clear terms just what addiction is. Then, we’ll cover who is at risk for addiction. Last but not least, we’ll divulge the truth about income and addiction.

Ready to find out more? Read on.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a complex brain condition characterized by compulsive and problematic drug use. The affected individual continues to use drugs, even though they know they’ll experience negative consequences. What’s more, if they stop using, they suffer withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

The double whammy of cravings and withdrawals makes attempting to escape addiction on your own a risky proposition. Indeed, the word ‘addiction’ comes from the Latin term for ‘bound to.’ Many recovering addicts would agree that ‘bound to’ is an apt description. Even if they want to stop, they find it extremely difficult to do so.

Another trait of addiction that occurs fairly early on is loss of control over use. Someone may start out using drugs or alcohol recreationally. But, over time, they use more and more. At first, they might be trying to escape the stresses of everyday life, whether that’s their financial situation, work obligations or their family dynamic. At some point, though, simply not using drugs causes stress. At that point, they’re no longer using recreationally, and they’re not trying to avoid the stress of their everyday life. They’re simply responding to the stress induced by cravings and withdrawal.

For many years, researchers thought that only hard drugs could cause addiction. Today, though, thanks to sophisticated neuroimaging techniques, researchers understand that any drug or activity that triggers feelings of intense pleasure can cause addiction. This can include activities such as eating, food, sex, shopping and gambling.

How Does It Start?

No one starts out wanting to become an addict. Yet nearly 23-million Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol. That’s nearly one in 10. More than two-thirds of people who use alcohol abuse it. Other than alcohol, the most commonly abused drugs are:

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Opioid pain relievers

All of these drugs affect the body in different ways, but there’s a common theme: they stimulate the brain’s reward center, producing an intense high. Consider for a moment the fact that the brain registers all pleasures in the same way, using the same neurological circuitry. So whether a person gets a bonus at work or gets high, the feeling of excitement, contentment and satisfaction is generated in the same area of the brain.

The difference is that drugs like marijuana, cocaine, alcohol and opioids force the brain to register reward whether it’s justified or not. They do this by causing the brain to release neurotransmitters like dopamine.

Over time, the brain tries to resist this by developing tolerance. The brain becomes, quite literally, resistant to the drug. The result is that the person then has to take more of the drug to get high. The higher dose once again forces the brain to release neurotransmitters. The person gets high, and things go back to normal, for a while.

Eventually, though, the brain becomes dependent on the substance to tell it when to release neurotransmitters.

It’s at this point that irreversible brain changes may occur.

When the brain becomes chemically dependent on the substance, the person will experience intense cravings for the drug. This happens because the brain has become accustomed to a certain level of dopamine and expects the drug to trigger its release. If the person then doesn’t take the drug like normal, they’ll experience withdrawal symptoms. This is the brain reacting to having missed the cue to release dopamine.

If you go for a day or more without eating, you’ll become hungry. That’s an intrinsic need. A chemical dependency is similar, but it’s an acquired need.

What’s more, scientists once thought that dopamine was only involved in reward and pleasure. They now understand this isn’t the case. This neurotransmitter is also involved in learning and behavior reinforcement. This means that every time you use a drug to force yourself to feel good, you’re teaching the brain that this is a normal thing to do. This may explain how the brain goes from developing tolerance to chemical dependence so quickly.

What Factors Influence Addiction?

There are many factors that influence addiction, and as we’ll see, income is certainly one of them. Before we get to that, however, we should briefly highlight the other traits, as they’ll factor in later on. The fact is  many people abuse alcohol or drugs and never develop a substance use disorder. Why can these people abuse drugs but not become dependent on them?

As with all other diseases, there are risk factors associated with addiction. These include:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Brain characteristics that can make a person more prone to addiction
  • Psychological factors such as high Impulsivity, sensation seeking, anxiety and depression
  • Concurrent mental illness
  • Exposure to emotional, physical or sexual abuse
  • Exposure to neglect
  • Other environmental factors, such as family members in the home who are addicted to drugs
  • Using any drug at an early age

Having one, or even a few, of these risk factors does not guarantee that you’ll become an addict if you choose to experiment with drugs. But their presence does imply that you might have a harder time controlling your consumption if you do.


Of these, genetics appears to be one of the most influential factors in the long run. You see, the other factors likely have more influence on whether a person starts using drugs, but to a large extent, genetics determine whether someone will become addicted. In other words, there may be genes, or mutations, that make a person more susceptible to addiction.

Is Anyone Immune?

Some drugs, like heroin, fentanyl and nicotine are extremely addictive. They’re so addictive, in fact, that just about anyone can become addicted to them. So even if you don’t have any of the risk factors above, don’t assume that you can’t become addicted to drugs or alcohol. However, most people who try drugs or alcohol once or twice do not develop substance abuse disorder.

Addiction & Income

When reading about addiction and income, you may have come across the term ‘economic status.’ This is a broad term that refers to the bracket, or category, a person falls into based on how much money they bring in per year. For instance, in 2012, 122,458,000 households in the U.S. reported income. Of those, 4.5 percent brought in more than $200,000. Middle class was considered to be between $39,736 and $104,087 per year.

Breaking income level down into brackets like this makes it easier for researchers to study addiction rates. Unfortunately, income is only one factor contributing to addiction, and looking only at the income data can lead to stereotyping.


Addiction can strike anyone, of any socioeconomic background. Yet there is a persistent stereotype that most drug addicts are of the lower middle class or that they live below the poverty line. Many people assume that drug addicts are also:

  • Homeless
  • Unemployed or lazy
  • Uneducated
  • Weak-willed

These stereotypes persist because addiction has predictable effects. An alcoholic may start out firmly in the middle class, but eventually, they may lose their job and go deeply into debt to pay their mortgage. They may even eventually lose their home because they’re unable to hold another job. A compulsive gambler can go down the same path, spending their savings.

The reason these stereotypes exist is because drug use is more common among those living in poverty. But here, we must point out that correlation is not always causation. At least, we cannot assume that it is. There is a correlation between drug use and poverty, but poverty is not always the ultimate cause of drug use. Indeed, as we saw in the above examples, problematic drug use can cause poverty.

To summarize, you can start using drugs at any income level, and your economic status can fall because drug use can spiral out of control.

So low economic status alone does not cause drug use. It can, however, encourage it. Recall in the previous section that addictive drugs stimulate the reward center of the brain. Individuals at or below the poverty line may be more willing to use drugs to create a short-term high, even if they know that high is artificial.

This means that if you start out upper middle class and then fall to the poverty line because of your drug habit, your drug use might increase rapidly from that point.

However, you’ll also recall from the previous section that there are several factors that can make problematic drug use more likely. Among these were:

  • Abuse and neglect
  • Genetics
  • Mental health issues
  • Parental or immediate family member substance abuse

Consider that the above issues are may have less impact on someone from a household that is significantly above the poverty line. For instance, in many mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, early diagnosis and treatment can have a staggering impact on prognosis.  Additionally, wealthy families will be the first to access genetic tests that may identify problematic genetic mutations. These children will then have forewarning not to experiment with drugs.

Finally, higher income individuals are likely to have high quality educations. They may be more aware of the dangers of drugs. Consider this survey. The study compared high school seniors from 1981 through 1986. During the five year period, the general trend was toward lower drug use. However, the largest reduction was seen among folks who had highly educated parents. Moreover, the smallest reduction in drug use occurred among those who had parents who did not attend high school.

This sort of epidemiological data is not useful for demonstrating causation. However, it does clearly show that there is an association between education, income and drug use that researchers should give further scrutiny.

What of neglect? While neglect is certainly not confined to the lower classes, it is more common there. Sadly, adults who use drugs are 2.7 times more likely to abuse their children and are 4 times more likely to neglect them. This can create a trickle-down effect that carries over from generation to generation—in essence, a self-sustaining trap that makes experimentation with drugs more likely.

Summary: the risk factors that predispose people to substance abuse disorder are more common in low economic areas and at low income levels.

A Most Clear and Present Danger

So far, we’ve established that anyone can develop an addiction, but that having a high income or wealth can make a person less likely to start taking drugs. According to the paper, The Opioid Crisis & Economic Opportunity: Geographic & Economic Trends, people with fewer economic prospects are indeed more likely to become addicted to opioids.

Rural, less prosperous areas of the U.S. have experienced a higher overdose rate. On the whole, low income counties are more likely to have higher rates of opioid abuse.

Recall that opioids stimulate the brain’s reward center. In fact, the brain produces its own special opioids, known as endorphins. The brain releases endorphins when we exercise or experience other forms of stress. Endorphins, like all opioids, lessen the perception of pain. But prescription opioids—and the illicit form, heroin—are much stronger than nature’s endorphins.

Low income individuals may experiment with these drugs to escape emotional or physical pain. Unfortunately, opioids are extremely addictive. Synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl can cause chemical dependence must faster than other drugs.

If you’re struggling with opioid abuse, the time to get help is now. Don’t let abuse progress to addiction.

When to Get Help

When it comes to alcohol or drug use, it’s hard to be objective. You may think you have a problem one day, but the next, you can easily convince yourself that you have everything under control. But if your drug use is causing problems in your life, it’s time to take a step back and do a self-assessment. Consider the following. Has your drug use ever:

  • Left you wishing you could stop?
  • Made you regretful that you broke a promise to someone you care about?
  • Made you lose relationships that you cared about?
  • Left you in serious debt?
  • Landed you in jail?
  • Caused you to get a DWI?

If you answered yes to more than one of these, it may be time to seek the help of an accredited rehabilitation facility.

Let’s take a deeper look. In general, substance abuse causes predictable side effects. Audit your recent behavior for any of the following:

  • Lack of control. You use more and more, and you don’t feel like you’re the one in control.
  • Desire to stop. You want to stop, but you think, or maybe even know, that you can’t.
  • Spending a lot of time getting the drug. Finding, buying and stashing your drug takes up a lot of time. You may also find yourself obsessing about the drug when it’s out of your site.
  • You don’t take responsibility. If something bad happens because of your drug use, it’s never your
  • Loss of interest. You used to enjoy a variety of hobbies. Now you only care about getting high.
  • Loss of relationships. You used to have relationships that meant a lot to you. But lately, those relationships have slipped away. But as long as you have your drug, you’re okay.
  • Risky behavior or dangerous use. If you don’t have the money to buy the drug outright, you’re willing to engage in risky, dangerous or criminal behaviors to get it. Sometimes, you’re in such a hurry to get high that you do risky things like share needles.
  • Your situation is getting worse. Your finances are out of control, or your health is declining. But you can recall a time before the drug use when these issues were not present.
  • When you don’t use the drug for a few hours, you experience cravings.
  • You need to use more of the drug to get high. Your drug habit is becoming more expensive and the drug seems weaker than it did before.
  • If you stop taking the drug for 12 hours or more, you experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

In Group - Addiction - The HillsAny of these are clear warning signs that addiction may be taking root. If you see yourself in the above points, don’t wait—get help now.

An accredited rehabilitation facility like The Hills can help you get a hold of your addiction. The first step is detox, which, while unpleasant, will get the drug out of your system. Next, the center’s highly trained staff will teach you powerful therapy modalities. You won’t just be sitting around talking about your feelings, though, you’ll be learning powerful techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy with which you can take control over your addiction.

Did you find this post helpful? Give it a share and consider The Hills for your addiction treatment center needs! We’re here to help you get on the road to addiction recovery!

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