According to a new study that will be released this week, the steady decrease in employed adult Americans over the past two decades is strongly connected to the increase in opioid prescription rates over that same time frame. Princeton economist Alan Krueger discovered this connection by comparing county-level opioid prescription rates from 1999-2001 and 2014-2016 to labor force data from the same years. “The problem of the depressed labor force has run into the problem of the opioid crisis,” he concluded, “Now they’re connected.”
Currently, around 12% of “prime age” men, aged between 25 and 54, do not have jobs and aren't looking for jobs. This statistic is up from 8% in the late 1990's, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only 69% of prime age men are currently employed, down from 75% in 2000. The rate of prime age women who are employed has also decreased, but less dramatically, from 60% in 2000 to 57.2% today.
During this same time period, sales of prescription opioids have quadrupled, and the number of opioid overdoses has increased significantly. Krueger found that unemployed people reported higher usage of painkillers than those who were employed. Meanwhile, a national survey of employers reported that the number of failed drug tests among job applicants reached a 12-year-high this year.
In the study, Krueger estimates that the increase in opioid prescriptions between 1999 and 2015 was responsible for about 20% of the decrease in workforce participation among men, and 25% among women. Areas with the highest rates of painkiller prescriptions, like the southeast and southwest, experienced the most workforce shrinkage.
Although President Trump has declared the opioid crisis a “national emergency,” Krueger believes that this alone is not enough to solve the problem. The economist states that legislators need to focus on helping people find employment and stay away from addictive pharmaceuticals. “At a personal level, I think people are not very satisfied with their lives when they’re out of the labor force, and from an economic standpoint, they’re on the sidelines,” Krueger said. “They’re not even on the team.”