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Drinking Habits

Effects of Socioeconomic Status on Alcohol Use

June 8, 2024
16 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 8, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 8, 2024
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 8, 2024
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Reframe Content Team
June 8, 2024
16 min read

The Significant Impacts of Socioeconomic Factors on Alcohol Use

  • Socioeconomic status isn’t often discussed as a factor that impacts alcohol consumption, but it plays a significant role.
  • Lower socioeconomic status is associated with higher alcohol consumption — calling for individual and systemic changes to address disproportionate effects and barriers. 
  • Reframe helps us understand all the factors that contribute to alcohol consumption to help us be better equipped to handle them!

Many factors impact alcohol consumption. Genetic and environmental factors are most commonly discussed; however, socioeconomic status can affect both genetic and environmental factors. This correlation suggests that certain socioeconomic groups may be disproportionately affected by alcohol. 

By addressing other impacts of alcohol consumption such as socioeconomic factors, we can better understand the disproportionate challenges that marginalized individuals face. We also can employ this knowledge to advance systemic change as we take personal steps to improve our own relationship with alcohol.

Dissecting Socioeconomic Status

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Socioeconomic status (SES) is a measure of economic and social status. It’s a multidimensional construct that is measured by using several factors, including income, education, and occupation. SES is commonly categorized as low, medium, or high. 

SES is a major component in shaping individual opportunities and access to resources. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), socioeconomic factors directly affect our health at an individual and broader level. It can affect our ability to participate in healthy habits, afford treatment, and manage stress. For example, a job provides income, which gives us access to food, education, medical care, housing, and other needs — directly impacting our overall well-being.

Lower SES groups often have fewer resources, creating a higher risk of poor health outcomes. Where does alcohol fit into this complex equation?

How Can Alcohol Affect Socioeconomic Status?

We’ve learned that socioeconomic status is primarily measured through three main components: income, education, and occupation. Alcohol’s behavioral and social effects can impact all three. 

Behavioral Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol can have acute and long-term effects on our behavior. When we drink, alcohol slows down messaging in our brain, which lowers our inhibitions, affects our judgment, and causes fluctuations in our mood. 

After prolonged and excessive exposure, alcohol can cause long-term changes to our brain structures. Impacts on our frontal lobe can have several behavioral effects:

  • Impaired judgment
  • Blunted emotions
  • Poor insight
  • Distractibility
  • Cognitive rigidity
  • Reduced motivation
  • Increased anger
  • Depression
  • Anxiety 

These behavioral effects can lead to a variety of social consequences. 

Social Effects of Alcohol

Behavior has significant social impacts. In fact, a negative relationship with alcohol is often associated with poor personal relationships, but that’s not all. Excessive drinking can have negative social effects.

  • Financial problems. Excessive spending on alcohol and avoiding financial responsibilities can easily lead to financial issues.
  • Family and relationship problems. Those who are close to us may not agree with our drinking habits. This can strain personal relationships and drive those who are closest to us away.
  • Isolation and social withdrawal. Poor drinking habits can take up all our free time and energy, often leading to isolation and social withdrawal.
  • Decline in work or academic performance. Excessive drinking can significantly affect work or academic performance. It’s often associated with missing work or school and not meeting performance standards. 
  • Legal issues. Alcohol is associated with lowered inhibitions and impaired judgment. This can increase the risk of accidents and crimes that lead to legal issues.

Many of these social factors overlap with measures of socioeconomic status. Let’s get a picture of what alcohol consumption looks like between different socioeconomic groups. 

Comparing Patterns of Alcohol Use Among Different Socioeconomic Groups

Alcohol is heavily ingrained throughout most cultures in the U.S., but drinking patterns can differ between socioeconomic classes. 

A cross-sectional study on alcohol use among different SES groups found that high SES groups had the highest rate of alcohol consumption. This may be due to the availability of resources to purchase alcohol. A different study looking at the patterns of alcohol use found a high association with drinking between high and low SES groups. Despite the variation in findings across studies, both found that lower SES groups are associated with greater alcohol-related harms.

A systematic review of socioeconomic inequalities on alcohol-related mortalities confirmed the disproportionate effects of alcohol-related harms on low SES groups but noted that the association is complex and influenced by the intersectionality of many factors.

We know that alcohol consumption can lead to social consequences that can influence our socioeconomic status as adults but what about when we flip the script? 

How Does Socioeconomic Status Affect Alcohol Consumption?

The socioeconomic status of our parents and the SES we grow up in can significantly affect our drinking habits. Less access to resources can lead to higher rates of alcohol consumption, which affects our SES as adults — creating a negative cycle. SES affects alcohol consumption through three main aspects:

  • Income. Whether we like it or not, the world greatly revolves around money. Income can affect many facets of life, including the neighborhood we live in, access to resources, access to alcohol, and even how much our parents were or weren’t around when we were growing up. 
  • Education. Access to education is a factor that is influenced by income, as higher income typically means more access to better education and resources. Access to quality education informs us of alcohol-related risks, which can affect consumption.
  • Social. Have you ever heard the saying that we’re the average of the five people closest to us? While this may not be entirely true, it is true that we are influenced by the environment around us. Lower SES groups have higher alcohol consumption rates — increasing the normalization of alcohol. They also have fewer buffering resources, which can make them more prone to stress. Both factors can lead to increased alcohol consumption. 

Socioeconomic factors play a major role in alcohol consumption. However, its impact disproportionately affects lower SES groups. What are the consequences?

Consequences of Socioeconomic Disparities in Alcohol Use

Despite lower SES groups being disproportionately affected, alcohol consumption affects our public health as a whole. There are many negative, widespread effects of the biased effects of socioeconomic influence on alcohol consumption:

  • Higher prevalence of alcohol-related problems. More people make up lower SES groups due to the disproportionate distribution of wealth in the U.S. Since lower SES groups are associated with higher levels of alcohol consumption, their rates of alcohol-related issues, such as accidents and crime, trend higher.
  • Increased impact on physical health outcomes. Higher alcohol consumption among a greater percentage of the population that participates in excessive drinking means poorer health outcomes overall. Those outcomes include health conditions directly associated with alcohol, including liver disease, cardiovascular issues, diabetes, certain types of cancers, and more.
  • Greater mental health implications. Similar to alcohol’s effects on physical health, a higher rate of excessive drinking also can lead to negative mental health impacts. In addition to an increased risk of developing mental health disorders, a lack of access to treatment can further exacerbate the situation. 
  • Economic burden. Excessive drinking creates a financial burden not only for the individual but also for the economy as a whole. Due to healthcare expenses, decreased workplace productivity, accidents, and social justice expenses, excessive drinking cost the U.S. an estimated $249 billion in 2010 alone. 
  • Perpetuating a cycle. Socioeconomic factors can influence alcohol consumption, which can impact our individual socioeconomic status. The resulting toxic cycle can influence generations to come. 

Socioeconomic factors are interconnected to overall health — making disparities disproportionately detrimental to lower SES groups. So what can be done about it?

Overcoming Socioeconomic Effects Due to Alcohol Use 

As we’ve learned, addressing socioeconomic factors that contribute to alcohol consumption is complex and requires much more than individual action. However, aside from lobbying for systemic change, the personal actions we take can be a step in the right direction.

  • Understand barriers. Acknowledging individual barriers is the first step in overcoming them. If we’re aware of specific challenges, we can develop strategies to work through them or reach out for support to help us overcome them. For example, if income is a barrier to accessing treatment, we can reach out to get more information on free/low-cost resources to access it.
  • Develop community. Navigating socioeconomic inequalities and a negative relationship with alcohol can be challenging, but we don’t have to do it alone. Find a group of friends within the community to develop a support system and share resources. 
  • Spread knowledge. Education is a key way to gain understanding, foster empathy, and reduce stigma. Spreading knowledge about the harmful effects of alcohol and the factors that can influence our drinking is a start in addressing its inequalities.
  • Quit/cut back on alcohol. No matter what socioeconomic group we’re in, quitting or cutting back on alcohol is beneficial for our overall health and well-being. While it may not address the root causes of inequality, it can help stop the entrapping cycle of drinking.

These small steps can feel like a drop of water in the ocean, but change always starts somewhere! 

The Bottom Line

Socioeconomic inequalities won’t change overnight, but acknowledging the need for change is crucial in making a difference. Factors such as education, income, and occupation aren’t always taken into consideration when contending with alcohol consumption and its harms. However, SES is a major indicator of alcohol consumption, highlighting the importance of addressing different socioeconomic factors if we are to improve public health. We can do our part by understanding the systemic and social inequalities as we develop a healthier relationship with alcohol and break a generational cycle!

Summary FAQs

1. What are the behavioral effects of alcohol?

Alcohol can have acute and long-term effects on our behavior. When we drink, alcohol slows down messaging in our brain, which lowers our inhibitions, affects our judgment, and causes fluctuations in our mood.  

2. What are the social consequences of alcohol?

Some social consequences of alcohol include relationship issues, decreased work or academic performance, and legal problems.

3. Does socioeconomic status affect alcohol consumption?

Yes. Socioeconomic status plays a major role in alcohol consumption patterns.

4. Who is disproportionately affected by the socioeconomic effects of alcohol use?

Lower socioeconomic groups are disproportionately affected due to limited access to treatment and less access to education on alcohol-related harms.

5. How can I challenge the socioeconomic effects of alcohol use?

We can challenge the effects of SES on alcohol use by educating ourselves and spreading the knowledge to push for a more well-rounded approach to addressing excessive alcohol consumption. 

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