Bryan Caplan  

The Fallacy of Dulling the Pain of Poverty

What Did You Learn in Business... Does Import Dependence Make Us...
Why are the poor more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol?  As a matter of dollars and cents, substance abuse should rise, not fall, with income.  These habits are expensive, both directly and indirectly.  Directly: Drugs and alcohol cost money.  Indirectly: Drug and alcohol abuse make you less employable, less healthy, more reckless, and more likely to get in trouble with the law. 

First-hand accounts of poverty generally recognize that heavy users of drugs and alcohol pay a high material cost.  Yet they rarely reach my verdict: that other factors - like low IQ, low conscientiousness, low patience, or plain irrationality - must be driving both poverty and substance abuse.  Instead, observers usually say that the poor consume drugs and alcohol to "dull the pain."  Some even argue that the poor are being entirely rational: If your life is a living hell, narcoticizing yourself is the simplest solution.

There's just one problem with this explanation: By almost all accounts, substance abuse eventually makes your life worse.  The long-term addict's life is utterly wretched - even if you average in his periodic drug-induced euphorias.  Someone who has yet to start using drugs and alcohol doesn't face a choice between "full pain" and "dulled pain."  Instead, he chooses between two paths of pain:

Path #1: Full pain in the short-run, followed by gradual life progress.

Path #2: Dulled pain in the short-run, followed by a gradual downward spiral into abject misery.

Suppose you're poor.  Your life is unusually painful, so the immediate effect of drugs and alcohol is especially attractive.  The long-run prognosis for a poor substance abuser, however, is especially repellent.  You hit "rock bottom" sooner because you don't have far to fall.  And your version of "rock bottom" is extra bleak because you lack the financial resources and social connections to cushion the blow and get back on your feet.

The lesson: On net, poverty isn't a believable root cause of substance abuse, because being poor doesn't make substance abuse a better overall deal.  Why then would poor people be more inclined to narcoticize themselves?  Once again, we should look for root causes of poverty and pathology.  Low patience is the most obvious suspect.  If you loathe to defer gratification, you'll tend to have low income, and eagerly use drugs and alcohol today despite their awful cost down the line. 

Closing questions: If you were poor, would you turn to drugs and alcohol?  If you were a social worker, would you advise the poor to turn to drugs and alcohol?  I doubt it.  The reason, of course, is that on some level you already know what I'm telling you: Poverty is no excuse for substance abuse because substance abuse is an absurd response to poverty.

COMMENTS (32 to date)
Philippe Bélanger writes:

If you are rich, you probably have a job that makes you indispensable (in the short-run at least), and that brings fulfilment to your life, both in personal terms and in social status.

If you are poor, your job probably sucks. You don't feel valuable, and your work is not socially recognised. So you to find a cheap way to forget about it, at least for some time, especially when you know your life will not get much better, since you have reached a point in your life where it's not feasible to make substantial investment in your human capital because your brain is not as quick and learning as in your 20s.

Neal W. writes:

I read an article once (I think it may have been on Scientific American) that claimed research found that poverty reduces willpower because it is more stressful. Thus, poverty could be cause of substance abuse if it reduces the willpower of a person to refrain from seeking the short-term pleasure of drugs/alcohol.

Chris Koresko writes:

If a person is poor in the U.S., then he is eligible for government charity which is comparable to a minimum-wage job. And he faces a marginal tax rate which may be 100% or even higher, depending on exactly what programs he's enrolled in. So he may have little incentive to increase or even maintain his productivity – if he earns an extra dollar, the government takes most or all of it from him in the form of higher taxes and smaller checks. In contrast, a person who is earning a good income keeping most of it has a lot to risk if his productivity falls.

Perhaps substance abuse is not a response to poverty, as much as it is a form of recreation which is made more affordable by poverty.

Daniel Shapiro writes:

Three points, Bryan.

1. Alcohol is a drug, so the drug/alcohol distinction, though popular, makes little sense.

2. The Idea that a long term addict's life is utterly wretched isn't necessarily true. It depends on the drug activity (think of cigarette smoking) and other variables.

3. You may be interested in my piece "Addiction and Drug Policy" published in a number of Current Moral Problem anthologies.



Peter St. Onge writes:

The "poor must narcotize unhappiness" argument seems empirically testable with happiness econ.

Isn't income low correlation with income, below e.g. marriage, friends, spirituality, #kids, commuting time, etc?

So do people lacking in those other happiness factors tend to narcotize their unhappiness away, or do we only see this with income?

Paul Gowder writes:

Sigh. What about the fact that poor people can generally anticipate worse futures anyway, and for that reason rationally discount the future heavily?

Quintessential case: kid who grows up in a dangerous neighborhood where people get killed/incarcerated on the regular. A perfectly rational Bayesian updater, he draws appropriate conclusions about his vulnerability to similar misfortunes and focuses on short-term pleasures.

Paul Gowder writes:

Ok, I've gone to the length of writing an extended response to this whole series of posts, on my own blog. Executive summary: the whole line of argument is marred by a failure to attend to the way the choices of the poor are constrained. A single example of these constraints that has a radical effect is the greater vulnerability of the poor to violence. That single consequence of poverty (let alone all of the others) makes most of the previously-discussed "irrational" choices of the poor suddenly look much more rational.

Peter writes:

@ Paul:

And if he survives til age 18, he rationally updates his Bayesians, does a year of community college in Utah to patch up his math, goes on to State U and gets his dentistry degree, right?

James writes:

Hyperbolic discounting.

Neal writes:

I'm intrigued to know how you claim to be able to

average in his periodic drug-induced euphorias

Like you, I value introspection, so for this post to have any credibility, I think you should detail your personal experience of hard drugs.

Marvin writes:

To expand a tiny bit on choice constraint, drugs and alcohol are relatively achievable luxuries. For those that can't travel, dine out, or do any of 100 other things that require a minimum level of income, a visit to the corner store becomes even more attractive. The downside is the deleterious property of this practice compared to sitting on an island beach.

Chris Stucchio writes:

Neal W, if that is the case, why don't poor college students (living in overcrowded conditions, eating low quality food) don't behave similarly?

Michael Rulle writes:

The whole framework of this argument seems disconnected from reality. I think all classes of people are prone to various forms of self medication. Prescription drugs for anxiety and depression are the legal drug of choice for the insured. Plus, the old stand by, booz. Further, you have not defined poor clearly enough to make a cultural distinction between poor and not poor. I may very well be "projecting", but this essay seems like an exercise in sterotyping.

Michael Rulle writes:

I take back my previous post, as your conclusion is the same as mine. Need to be a more careful reader, although I still think we get to the same point in different ways.

Eli writes:

I agree with Bryan Caplan.

But there's a simple and obvious story he neglects. Poverty causes emotional duress, and emotional duress is traded off for alcoholism and drug abuse. That would make poverty, indeed, a root cause for drug and alcohol abuse.

If you view the bad behavior as a tradeoff to the unavoidable pain that comes with living in poverty; a depressing solution rather than an irrational response to a problem, a coherent story can be told that both maintains poverty as the root cause, and people acting rationally to prices.

I don't believe my own story, but it's ppssible.

Lee Kelly writes:

The poor are more vulnerable to violence, but I think people underestimate how much this is a consequence, as much as a cause, of their preference for short-term gratification.

I'm poor and live in a poor county. My wife is a therapist working for a local mental health organisation, and she spends most of her days dealing with people from even poorer communities--the 'underclass'. They're stupid, impulsive, and unconscientious to a frightening degree. By the standards of the elites who set diagnostic criteria, personality disorders of aggression, addiction, and low intelligence are normal.

Many such people are, of course, victims or violence, but they also completely buy into violence as the completely acceptable and natural to resolve conflict. They continue to surround themselves with violent people and instigate violence themselves--it's like they're perpetual 16 year olds. Even when they're are intelligent enough to recognise, after some pushing and prodding, how recklessly myopic such behaviour is, they normally just shrug their shoulders or, at best, promise to do it a little bit less.

The striking thing is that every now and then you stumble upon someone who doesn't belong in such a community--they're reasonably smart, disciplined, and conscientious. They often struggle, especially when young, to get along and often adopt similar aggressive and short-term strategies just to survive, but they usually move on eventually. That is, they disassociate from their community and its short-term values. Maybe they never become as well-educated or wealthy as they might have had they began life somewhere else, but they also don't just passively absorb the same habits, values, and pathologies of their peers.

Eli writes:

Do you think that poor lottery winners usually quit their drug and alcohol abuse after they win the lottery? I wonder if any research has been done. It seems like a good place to find an answer.

August writes:

Poverty is only a contributor, and its absence plays a larger role, because wealthy people can certain have phases were they engage in unhealthy behavior, but having the capacity to plan ahead- to think not only of children, but grandchildren, of the family through generations- means the wealthier person is likelier to abstain or restrict damaging behavior in favor of planning for the future.
If you can't imagine the future, there isn't a reason to defer the simpler immediate gratifications.

Floccina writes:

Often if a poor person gets a large a cash windfall they end up in worse shape because they go on a binge. You see this in some lottery winners and professional athletes and rock musicians. I do not know if more will be better off or worse off but it seems testable by giving a cash to the poor.

Interestingly only libertarians (and notably not Democrats) propose replacing in-kind welfare with wage subsidies because despite their argument that poverty causes poor thinking (substance abuse and short term thinking) they do not trust the poor with money.

Floccina writes:

One more point is that the poor in America are only relatively poor. I have lived in Honduras and I think our poor usually have more stuff that the Honduran middle class.

One other point:

It is possible that the bottom 10 percent of society will live longer, healthier lives in poverty stricken Cuba than in the industrialized world. That do to a lack of access to drugs and too much food.

Costard writes:

Why is everyone assuming that poverty leads to drug abuse? Perhaps drug abuse leads to poverty. This would provide the simpler, more logical explanation, and would seem to satisfy Occam's razor. Or are we simply wedded to more Dickensian interpretations?

BD writes:

Couldn't this be a function of environment?

Wealthy folks have a buffer on the long term effects of the short term gratification of drug use. 1 step back (whatever that means) rarely will put them behind the 8ball.

Poor folks don't have the same buffer on recovering from those short term step-backs. Which would seem to entrench both their poverty and their access to recovery systems to bring them back towards + steps. And because poor communities are afflicted with drug use, drug use is less stigmatized and drug access is greater.

Glen Smith writes:

Drug use doesn't cause poverty, not all drug users become addicts and drug abuse is in almost all occasions an attempt to dull some sort of pain. Poverty is not the only kind of pain one suffers in life that one might seek to dull by self-medication. Also, many drugs offer a bit of performance enhancement (either real or perceived). Although it is true that poverty does not cause drug abuse, it is illogical to argue that poverty does not cause an increase in the reasons to become a drug abuser. In fact, the argument that drug abuse is, in part, an attempt to dull the pain of poverty would be a core part of any libertarian argument.

Stan writes:

I think you've answered your own question Bryan. This is most likely a psychological problem, which probably has to do with being poor as well.

Most of us recognize this as willpower. The ability to endure short-term pain for long-term benefits is greater in some than in others. It's irrational, but since when can we be accused of being rational?

And there is something to say about natural selection; since this behavior hasn't been bred out, maybe there are other reasons why many of us opt for costly immediate gain.

Floccina writes:
drug abuse is in almost all occasions an attempt to dull some sort of pain

Having know drug abuser and asked them about it the pain they seek to avoid is the pain of boredom.

Costard writes:

"Drug use doesn't cause poverty..."

No but drug abuse makes poverty a much more likely outcome. Holding a job and staying out of jail are two things that become more difficult with a substance problem. Compounding this is the fact that drug use typically begins at a young age, when poverty is frequently a given and future prospects are easily ruined.

"...and drug abuse is in almost all occasions an attempt to dull some sort of pain."

So is eating. And pursuing women, and working hard. People generally act out of desire -- not satisfaction.

Eileen writes:

Are you talking use or addiction? Addiction is now considered a brain disorder, not a behavior issue. It is also highly inheritable and often co-morbid with other mental disorders. I have heard that some people are addicted with their first drink or hit. So, addiction isn't really a choice.

Addiction also changes the brain - distorts thinking and feelings and creates compulsions. People with the disease must choose recovery - better and healthier habits. That's gotta be pretty hard for someone with out many resources.

Addiction is definitely the cause of poverty and pain that passes from one generation to the next.

Paul writes:

My simple guess as to why the poor are more likely to abuse drugs; they are much likelier to be victims or violence or sexual assault, or to have been to prison. I find it kind of weird that libertarians don't see a nexus between mass incarceration for the selling of narcotics, prison rape, and drug abuse and violence, or at the very least fail to mention it in a discussion about poverty in the U.S. Given just how destructive the war on drugs has been and continues to be, simply ending the war on drugs might have a massive impact on the incidence of poverty in the nation.

I mean, how often does a group of libertarians pass up on a chance to blame the government.

Neal writes:

So in essence, Bryan ignores revealed preference evidence (drug users maximise utility by buying drugs). Avoids stated preference evidence. Fails to provide any basis for his introspection (i.e. personal experience of drug use). He doesn't show that the costs of drug use outweigh the benefits if you are poor.

Bryan's theory may well be true. But this post is seriously weak.

Dan Carroll writes:

Pop Quiz:

1. Does poverty cause social pathologies or do social pathologies cause poverty?
2. Are social pathologies genetic or learned?
3. Is poverty an earned condition or unearned condition?
4. Is poverty too complicated to solve in a blog post or with an econometric model?

Answer Key:
1. Yes; 2. Yes; 3. Yes; 4. Yes

And, yes, culture matters, because culture is a communal adaptation to past and present circumstances. Past circumstances differ for different ethnic groups, and therefore different pathologies can emerge in what is seemingly similar present circumstances. We all know what the past circumstances were for African-Americans compared to, say, Asians-Americans. The suppression and destruction of the male identity, the dismemberment of family ties, and the involuntary eradication of the culture of orign are important repressive policies in the past that continue to negatively impact African-American culture in the present. While these policies may seem distant in the past, African-Americans were only given a partial chance to recover in the last 40 years or so (one generation).

However, while culture is intergenerational, it is not fixed and it evolves.

There is a reason why poverty is called a "cycle."

Arthur_500 writes:

Chris Koresko writes

Chris, I think you hit the nail on the head.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to fill my bong, roll some cigarettes, pop a 40 and watch Oprah tell me about how the wonderful people live.

Frankie writes:

Seventy (70%) of Mexican-American children drop-out of high school, genrally, in the 8th grade. When our Mexican-Ameerican nephew gradauted from high school, we were so proud.

His father comes from poverty, a Mexian farm. He is so proud that his son gradauted from high school. He, unfortunately, doesn’t insist that his son continue his education or even go to a Community College. They, afterall, live in a house with a floor.

As a taxpayer, I’ve provided my nephew with a Community College and a fine State University system TO ENVY! All to get him moving in the proper direction, up the economic ladder.

I guess, in the future, my nephew will induldge himself in drugs to ease the pain of poverty. HIs father didn't, but his father was hungry.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top