Much has been made of a 2010 Gallup survey finding that the proportion of people saying they drink alcohol increases steadily with income. Alcohol consumption went from 46 percent for people earning less than $20,000 to 81 percent for people earning over $75,000. Hence the oft-repeated claim that affluent people drink more. Yet, to say that more rich people drink is logically very different from saying that rich people drink more. Yes, a lot of them drink but it is mostly in moderation.
The notion that rich people are heavy drinkers is intriguing because it violates our stereotypes about what it means to be poor. Oscar Wilde articulated one of these cleverly when he pointed out that work is the curse of the drinking class.
There is plenty of evidence that poverty is a risk factor for binge drinking and alcoholism. Epidemiological research finds that living in a disadvantaged neighborhood is a strong predictor of alcoholism (1). What is more, life events that increase poverty also increase alcoholism. The clearest evidence for this is what happened following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Soaring unemployment rates were accompanied by a sharp increase in alcoholism so severe that it lopped several years off the life expectancy of Russian men (2).
Yet, the truth is often complex and the stereotype that poor people drink more is unreliable given that the majority of them do not drink at all. The conclusion that rich people drink more is also misleading. Although more rich people drink, they generally drink in moderation.
Recent evidence shows that typical rich drinkers consume 2-3.5 drinks per day (3). This moderate level of alcohol consumption is exactly the amount that is associated with health benefits in terms of reduced risk of heart disease.
Conversely people close to the bottom of the income ladder mostly divide into two extremes. Either they do not drink at all, or they drink to excess.
There is no real mystery about why poor people might drink to excess. Heavy drinking is a way to escape from the stress and lack of control they experience in their lives, feelings that are less intense for affluent people who enjoy higher social status, better social support, and more economic freedom.
The real mystery then is why so many poor people do not drink at all. I suspect that many poor people avoid alcohol due to their direct experience with drunks whether in their own families, or their deprived neighborhood.
Affluent people seem to have a gift for drinking in moderation. That may be because they generally enjoy better social support networks and have more control over their own lives. That includes success in limiting their alcohol intake. Moderate drinking may be yet another health advantage of being wealthy.
1. Cerda, M. et al.(2010). The relationship between neighborhood poverty and alcohol abuse. Epidemiology, 21, 482-489.
2. Weidner, G. (2000). Why do men get more heart disease than women? An international perspective. Journal of American College Health, 48, 291-294.
3. Heien, D. (1996). The relationship between alcohol consumption and earnings. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 57, 536-542.