Drugs behind 1 in 5 cases of men dropping out of the US labor force

Drugs behind 1 in 5 cases of men dropping out of the US labor force

The labor force participation rate for working-aged American men dropped by 3 percentage points between 1999 and 2014, and new research indicates that 20% of this decline can be attributed to the so-called “opioid crisis” in the US.

The research, authored by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, examines county-level opioid-prescription rates, comparing this data with labor force participation in the same areas. The findings suggest a dramatic correlation between high levels of opioid prescriptions in a given region and the likeliness that it will have seen a significant decline in workforce participation.

Krueger’s paper also finds that areas with the highest opioid prescription rates are not necessarily those where the population is exceptionally ill or disabled. This suggests that it is differences in medical practices between regions, as opposed to differences in populations’ health, which are responsible for the variance.

The findings come against a decline in labor force participation in the US generally, which has fallen from a rate of 67% in the late 1990s to around 62.9% today. However, whilst much of the decline has been attributed to benign factors (such as the retirement of baby boomers, or young Americans spending more time in higher education and hence delaying entry to the workforce) the country now has the second-lowest participation rate for working-aged men among OECD countries—something deemed much more problematic.

Krueger concludes that “the opioid crisis and depressed labor force participation are now intertwined in many parts of the US. And despite the massive rise in opioid prescriptions in the 2000s, there is no evidence that the incidence of pain has declined; in fact, the results presented here suggest a small upward trend in the incidence of pain for prime age NLF [not in the labor force] and unemployed men. Addressing the opioid crisis could help support efforts to raise labor force participation and prevent it from falling further.”

Writing in his article Labor market policies, unemployment, and identity, Ronnie Schöb suggests that material hardship is not the only negative consequence of involuntary unemployment. Indeed, he points to strong evidence that this also “threatens a person’s sense of social identity and self-worth.”

He concludes that “Bringing unemployed people back to work should therefore be of uppermost priority for labor market policy.”

Read more articles about health and well-being and long-term unemployment.

For specific queries, contact one of our topic spokespeople.