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Drugs Are Why 1 in 5 Men Drop Out of the Labor Market

September 7, 2017, 4:08 PM UTC

The opioid epidemic is also an economic crisis, especially for males, according to new research from renowned Princeton University economist Alan Krueger. In fact, Krueger’s research indicates that 20% of the drop in men’s labor force participation is attributable to the drugs.

The opioid and prescription painkiller scourge claimed 33,000 American lives in 2015 alone. It has particularly ravaged rural areas in the Northeast, Appalachia, and the Midwest. Some employers in those regions have openly said they are struggling to find sober job applicants.

Krueger’s new study puts a number on the anecdotal evidence. His paper examines the causes behind the significant drop in U.S. labor force participation—particularly among American men—and was released Thursday at a conference held by the Brookings Institution think tank. “Labor force participation has fallen more in areas where relatively more opioid pain medication is prescribed, causing the problem of depressed labor force participation and the opioid crisis to become intertwined,” wrote Krueger.

The study points out that work force participation among men fell 3.2 percentage points in 2014-2016 compared with 1999-2001. While controlling for a number of variables, Krueger examined county opioid prescription rates against labor force data in those areas, concluding that “the increase in opioid prescriptions [over the past 15 years] could account for perhaps a 0.6 percentage point decline in male labor force participation, which is 20 percent of the observed decline in this period.” He goes on to say that prescription rates vary, not because of differences in people’s health, but rather due to different medical practices. That suggests the situation could be alleviated if doctors pursue alternative pain management methods.

President Donald Trump recently declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, but his administration has reportedly not yet followed through on the administrative steps that would free up resources to combat opioid addiction.