“Oh, I deal with drug addicts all the time with my job.”
As soon as the words came out of my mouth I wanted to take them back. But the damage was done. I had been talking about issues surrounding drug addiction with my mom, and it seemed only appropriate to mention my job. But I knew it was wrong.
Just what was wrong exactly? Many, many things.
One of the most insidious lies that people believe about poor communities is that they are ridden with drugs. Don’t believe me? Take a minute to engage in a thought experiment, and be honest. What are some of the things that come to mind when you think of the phrase “wealthy community”?
More than likely, the first things that come to mind are not drugs and alcoholism. Most people associate wealthy communities with success and some sort of an extravagant version of the “American dream.” For me, I typically think of giant homes, expensive cars, and gated driveways, usually followed by images of spoiled children playing with the latest technology. But let’s keep going. What type of person comes to mind when you think of drugs?
Once again, more than likely, the image that comes to mind includes a poor person. Maybe not consciously, but unconsciously many of us do this. Despite all of my own, personal beliefs surrounding racism and classism, the first image that comes to mind when I think of drugs has never been a rich person.
But why? Study after study shows that middle-class and upper-middle class people abuse substances just as much as people in poverty, if not more. And yet, most of us will never equate living in wealth with substance abuse. So why do we do this for living in poverty?
One possible reason is that middle-class and upper-middle-class people have the means to hide their addictions and problems. That is, drugs are less visible in wealthier communities — but no less prevalent.
Another possible reason is the very nature of America’s “War on Drugs,” which has excessively targeted poor people and communities of color. Even though drugs affect higher-income communities at roughly the same rate, poor people and people of color are disproportionately more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drugs. Such disproportionate targeting, driven largely by systemic racism and classism, has meant that drug abuse is more publicized in communities of color and poverty.
Another possibility is that drug problems in poor communities are often considered criminal issues for the police to handle, while drug problems in higher-income communities are considered health concerns needing treatment. The result is that drug-related problems in higher-income communities are glossed over with expensive programs, while drug-related problems in low-income communities leads to incarceration. The tendency to treat drug addicts from poverty as criminals and drug addicts from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds as victims is well documented.
When we hear about a middle-class family whose father suddenly disappears due to a drug addiction, we are shocked. Rarely do we wrap this story into a larger pathology surrounding the miseries of the middle and upper class. We don’t because no such pathology exists. We are more likely to empathize with the devastation of the family because we can see the effects of drugs as a human problem, not as a pathology.
The problem is that no such pathology exists in poverty either, but we are less likely to recognize this. Instead, we shake our heads and dismiss the devastations of drug abuse as just another problem embedded within a larger societal problem called poverty. We fail to realize that problems are not embedded within poverty. Problems are embedded within the human condition.
Until we see the challenges faced by poor people not as “poor people problems” but simply as human struggles, we will never be able to cross the systemic walls that separate the rich from the poor in our country. Perhaps poor communities are struggling with substance abuse. The insidious lie is that middle-class and upper-middle-class communities are not. They are. All communities everywhere are filled with many things, both good and bad. Why do we know this intuitively for higher-income communities but not for poor communities?
When I told my mom, “I deal with drug addicts all the time,” I was contributing to one of the most harmful stereotypes held against people in poverty. As a teacher in a low-income school, I have a responsibility to advocate for the families whose children I teach. Instead, in a single sentence, I erased the identity of my community and replaced it with a stereotype surrounding poverty and drugs.
After several minutes of internal turmoil, I returned and apologized for what I said. Wrong is wrong. It is time we stopped defining communities of poverty by their worst aspects. It is time we started treating them as neighbors.