Is Opioid Use Responsible for Decline in Labor Force?

The growing opioid epidemic in the United States continues to put a strain on the American workforce as new research shows that as many as one in five men of working age, in the US, drop out of the labor force because of drug use.

New research coming out of Princeton University, this week, suggests that a big part of the labor shift after the turn of the century/millennium could be due to more and more Americans in their prime working years, particularly males, are using recreational opioid drugs. According to Princeton University economist, Alan Krueger, the national increase in opioid painkiller prescriptions could probably account for a 20 percent decline in workforce between 1999 and 2015, among men between the ages of 25 and 40.

He comments, “The opioid epidemic and labor-force participation are now intertwined. I think the problems are wrapped up together now, and if we are to bring a large number of people back into the labor force who have left the labor force, I think it’s important that we take serious steps to address the opioid crisis.”

He goes on to say, “The problem of the depressed labor force has run into the problem of the opioid crisis. Now they’re connected.”

Indeed, the research found that the areas with the highest rates of opioid prescriptions also had a notably shrinking workforce population. The states who, perhaps, saw the biggest inverse ratio mostly in the southeast and southwest but also Nevada, Michigan, and Maine.

In the survey, Krueger found that both unemployed men and unemployed women report higher use of painkillers than those who have jobs. Also, Krueger says the survey said that 44 percent of out-of-work men reported using pain medication within the last 24 hours. It is important to note, however, that “pain medication” could also include acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

While many seem to suffer this fate more than women, the rate among women in this age group is also somewhat alarming. The study shows that nearly 35 percent of women who had dropped out of the labor force, recently, reported taking painkillers, compared against nearly 26 percent among those who have jobs. Krueger concludes, of course, “Women take opioids, just like men. The magnitudes are pretty similar.”

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