It seems that there is always some sort of drug abuse epidemic in America. Whenever the issue reaches the level of political and police action the solutions, too often, boil down to arrests and jail time.

We hear statements such as, "We need to get these drugs off of the streets." Yet, if we have learned anything over the decades of the so-called drug abuse epidemic it is that punishment does not work very well.

Other more enlightened societies have come to understand that the best way to cut down on drug abuse is to create a foundation and structure for a more equitable society. They try to figure out why people need the refuge of chemically induced euphoria.

I am not implying that stopping drug abuse is a simple matter. There will always be people from all levels of society with addictive personalities. There are as many reasons for drug abuse as there are abusers, but there are a few reasons for abuse common to large groups of people and our society could do a better job of putting measures in place to help some of those people.

It may be difficult to quantify anecdotal observations, but when the gap between the rich and the poor widens it appears that drug abuse increases among those who find it harder and harder to struggle to survive.

The 2014 Vermont minimum wage will be $8.60 an hour and the federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since 2009. That means that if a person works 40 hours a week at minimum wage in Vermont their gross income is $344 which means they probably have about $300 a week to spend on living essentials.

According to standard formulations, a person earning minimum wage should not spend more than $454 a month for rent (one-third of income). Working 60 hours at minimum wage would mean a monthly rent of $680 would be a third of income. Subsidies such as those for food stamps and rental assistance may be available, but they only ease the pain a little, they do not take away the daily struggle.

A single mother with two children tries to do the right thing. She works at a minimum wage job and shelters, clothes and feeds her kids. If she is lucky she will be eligible for subsidized housing. If she follows the news she finds out that the stock market is at an all-time high and that the class of super-wealthy rich people in this country continues to grow. It is doubtful this mother has time to keep up with the news, but she understands these facts on a gut level and the daily pain she suffers never seems to go away. The harder she works the more difficult life seems.

One day she decides to see a friend she knows who is a drug dealer. He offers her a free sample of heroin and tells her that because it is so pure that she can just snort it. She is having a bad day and things feel hopeless, so she takes a hit. For the next few hours all of her pain goes away and she is transported to a world far away from the daily struggle. When the drug wears off the pain of everyday life returns and she starts thinking about how good it felt to escape.

A few days later she goes shopping and figures that she can buy a few cheaper items and not buy others so that she can have enough money left over to escape from her miserable world again In a short time her daily pain becomes unbearable because she becomes homeless and her children are taken away. The only thing she can cling to is heroin.

This woman does have a chance to start a new life because there are programs and social service agencies to help her kick the addiction and become self-sufficient again. She will have to learn to accept the fact that the struggle to survive will never end and that there may be more healthy alternatives that offer some degree of relief from the pain of being a poor person in the United States.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse and long-time health care advocate. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at