The Link Between Opioids and Joblessness

Almost 50 percent of prime age men (ages 25 to 54) who are not in the labor force take some kind of pain medication every day, states a report by a Princeton economist on labor force participation (LFP) in the U.S. The LFP rate measures how many people are available to work as a percentage of the total population and has been decreasing since the early 2000s. In April, the LFP rate was 62.8 percent, meaning that more than 95 million Americans did not seek employment the previous month.

In his report, professor Alan Krueger suggests that the increase in opioid prescriptions from 1999 to 2015 could account for about 20 percent of the observed decline in the male LFP rate and about 25 percent of the decline for females. Krueger’s study also found that in the 2000s, labor force participation was lower and fell more in areas where the number of opioid prescriptions per person was higher.

Krueger’s is also not the only research to connect joblessness and opioids. A 2017 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research found a correlation between the increase in unemployment in a county and an increase in the number of both county emergency room visits and opioid overdose deaths. Additionally, Labor Department data has shown that 44 percent of jobless prime age men report taking some type of medication for pain relief the day before, and nearly two-thirds of that group took prescription pain medication. Social stigma and legal concerns around admitting drug use probably discourage accurate reporting, meaning that the true percentages are likely higher.

Krueger’s report does not attribute causality between the opioid crisis and the LFP rate, but he describes the two issues as “intertwined in many parts of the U.S.” As a result of his findings, he calls for expanded health insurance coverage and preventative care, saying, “The finding that nearly half of NLF [not in the labor force] prime age men take pain medication on a daily basis and that 40 percent report that pain prevents them from accepting a job suggests that pain management interventions could potentially be helpful.”

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