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Opioid Use and Lower Work Rates Go Hand-in-Hand

Labor force participation among men of prime working age is lowest in areas where prescription opioid use is highest, according to a 2017 analysis by Alan Krueger, PhD, of Princeton University and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The participation rate for men ages 25 to 54, which has been declining for decades, has fallen more steeply in recent years to a current level of 88.6%. The decline has been attributed to many factors, including mismatch of education to labor force needs, and the reduction in real wages of less skilled workers. (“Non-participators” differ from the “unemployed,” in that those who are unemployed are actively seeking employment.)

Krueger found that prime-age men who are out of the labor force reported much higher levels of fair or poor health than those in the labor force (43%, versus 12% for those employed and 16% for those unemployed), which correlated with much higher levels of disability. Non-participating men reported feeling pain about half the time, and their pain ratings were significantly higher than those in the labor force.

At least 31% of non-participating men reported taking prescription pain medication daily. Areas of the country with the highest rates of non-participation correlated with areas of highest opioid prescriptions, “causing the problem of depressed labor force participation and the opioid crisis to become intertwined,” Krueger wrote.

Since non-participating men (and to a lesser extent, women) exhibited “the lowest level of emotional well-being and life evaluation, there are potentially large gains to be had by identifying and implementing successful interventions to help [non-participating] prime age men and women lead more productive and fulfilling lives.”

Krueger, AB. “Where have all the workers gone? An inquiry into the decline of the U.S. labor force participation rate”, Published September 7, 2017. Accessed December 10, 2018