High Rate of Opioid Prescriptions Correlates to Low Labor Participation

 For the first time since data has been collected, there are more US jobs open than workers on the street to fill them. A Princeton economist pins part of the blame on lower labor participation in areas where opioid prescriptions are highest, suggesting the opioid crisis is both a health care and economic problem.

For the first time since data has been collected, there are more US jobs open than workers on the street to fill them. A Princeton economist pins part of the blame on lower labor participation in areas where opioid prescriptions are highest, suggesting the opioid crisis is both a health care and economic problem.

Workforce participation among prime-age (25-54) US workers lags behind most other developed countries and a Princeton economist puts part of the blame on over-prescription of opioids.

Alan Krueger, the former chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, analyzed labor force participation county-by-county across the nation from 1999 to 2015. His most stunning finding is a strong correlation between high opioid prescription rates and low labor force participation.

In an interview on NPR’s Here & Now, Krueger said his research showed opioid prescription rates in the highest 10 percent of counties were 30 times larger than in the 10 percent of counties with the lowest prescription rates. Differences in mixes of industry and underlying health conditions in various parts of the country could not account for such a stark disparity in opioid prescription rates. 

Krueger concluded that high opioid use and addiction is a contributing factor to counties with the biggest drop in labor participation since the Great Recession and chronic low labor force participation. Not all of the counties with high opioid prescription rates and low labor participation are economically distressed, he noted.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has reported the rate of US labor force participation is second lowest among developed nations, exceeding only Italy, which has been in a perpetual recession for years. The situation in the United States has reached a dubious milestone where more jobs (6.7 million) are now available than people looking for work. “The opioid crisis,” Krueger says, “has compounded the problem.”

Krueger explained persistent opioid use can affect worker motivation, diminish the ability to concentrate at work and lead to failed drug tests. He said his interviews with workers as part of his research indicated a majority take opioids for chronic pain unrelated to their work life.

Even if there wasn’t a correlation between opioid prescription rates and low labor participation, Krueger said there is a crisis. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States consumes 80 percent of all opioid prescriptions, and 35,000 Americans die annually from opioid overdoses.

Curbing opioid prescriptions is usually viewed through the lens of health care, which Krueger says justifies a greater emphasis on preventive care and alternative chronic pain strategies. But his research suggests the opioid crisis is exacting a price on local economies. To grow or regain economic vitality, communities need new investment. It can be hard to attract that new investment when there isn’t a very large pool of available workers and the workers who are available don’t have the right training. Add in a high rate of opioid use and the investor may head for the nearest door.