Easy access to liquor stores in low-income neighborhoods has long been seen as a root cause of alcohol dependency and other social ills.
But a new academic study of East Bay residents turns those stereotypes on their head. It finds that wealthy neighborhoods with the fewest stores selling alcohol have the highest rates of alcohol consumption. It also finds that high-income people tend to drink more alcohol more frequently than low income-people, no matter what neighborhood they live in.
“People always want to paint liquor stores and corner stores as the bad guys, that this is where all the violence and problems are, when really there are a lot more mechanisms than just how easy it is to get alcohol when you want to drink,” says Dr. Christina Mair, the lead study author and an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh. “People are not drinking more just because they live down the street from a liquor store.”
The study looked at 72 micro neighborhoods across Oakland, Alameda, Piedmont, Emeryville, Berkeley and Albany. The neighborhoods were categorized according to density of “off premises alcohol outlets,” like liquor stores and grocery stores, as well as median income. Nearly 1,000 people from these neighborhoods answered a phone survey.
Residents of high-income neighborhoods drank approximately twice as frequently as those in low-income neighborhoods, the study found. They also drank significantly more drinks per month. Those with a college or masters degree drank 58 percent more frequently than those without one.
These findings demonstrate that the presence of alcohol retailers “has much less of an effect than area income,” Mair says. The study also seems to show that for at least some people, alcohol consumption is influenced by their neighborhood. Low-income people residing in high-income neighborhoods reported drinking more than low-income people in low-income neighborhoods. However, high-income people in low-income neighborhoods still reported drinking more than their low-income neighbors.
Mair says that the literature on this subject consistently shows that “higher-income people drink more, but experience fewer problems related to their drinking.” That includes issues like harming family and social ties, losing a job or other source of income, and experiencing health problems.
“There are a lot of rich white men who drink pretty heavily but have never been arrested for a DUI, because if they go out and get drunk they can call an Uber,” Mair says. “They have the resources to protect themselves from potential problems.”
The people who drink the most also have the means to get alcohol at a wide variety of locations. For many of them, it’s not the liquor store on the corner: A quarter of the study participants told researchers the store where they purchased alcohol most often was Trader Joe’s.