The Opioid Crisis’ Wealth Window: There’s a Network of Overdoses on the East Coast

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Billerica, Massachusetts is a quaint town of 40,000 people in Middlesex County, the 25th richest county in the nation, right after Rockwall County, Texas, according to the 2016 American Community Survey.   Billerica’s town government spends its time improving their Yankee Doodle Bike Path and protecting their local wetlands. Their Council on Aging even gives out gift cards for local restaurants to those who participate in local government events. On Tuesday, May 30th, 2017 a raffle was held at their “Opioids & How NOT To Be a Victim” event for a $50 gift card to one such restaurant.

Unfortunately, beautiful Billerica has had 56 residents die from opioid overdoses since 2000, giving it a death rate of 1.4 per 1,000 people. This is higher than Somerville (80 deaths, 1.05 per 1,000 people), Boston (723 deaths, 1.2 per 1,000 people), and Springfield (160 deaths, 1 per 1,000 people).

Using the MassAnalysis Peer tool, we began to investigate towns with similar median incomes to Billerica, via Pioneer’s interactive Overdose and Wealth Data Map.

Billerica is not the only suburban town struggling with an opioid problem. In fact, most towns with high overdose rates are well above the state median income ($70,954) and concentrated in one area (eastern Massachusetts). We have collected a list of towns with the highest and moderate overdose rates with incomes above the state average to create the map below:

It’s clear that towns like Billerica are more susceptible to opioid overdoses; the high income and proximity of nearby towns with high overdose rates appear to be correlated in some way. However, we do not know what is causing that trend. All we know is that medium-to-high overdose rates are too concentrated in eastern Massachusetts to believe there isn’t a trend.

A possible correlation between the towns in the map above could be their location. Because they are close to each other, opioids only have to travel a short distance to get from one town to another, making it easier to deal and use drugs. Therefore, the interconnected nature of these towns could help explain to why their overdose rates are so high. The map below shows areas one could drive to in 15 minutes or less on a Monday at 8 a.m. (with traffic), further proving how accessible these towns are to each other.

Unlike most states, poverty isn’t a prerequisite for opiate-saturated communities. It is up to both researchers and lawmakers to work as a cohesive unit to solve this life-and-death crisis that is spreading through eastern Massachusetts. While impoverished communities need assistance, pretending that their wealthier counterparts aren’t susceptible to the opioid crisis is harming our communities. The government must acknowledge these trends, determine their causes, and work to save lives.


This article was co-written by Amy Tournas and Kaila Webb. Amy is a rising senior at Colby College studying Government and Global Studies, and a Roger Perry Government Transparency Intern . Kaila Webb is the Wellesley College Freedom Project’s intern for the Pioneer Institute, currently double majoring in Environmental Studies and Chinese Language & Culture.