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Where did all the workers go? New study says opioids are to blame

(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

It is no secret that the nation’s labor force participation has dropped significantly since 2000, but a new study blames the opioid crisis for the decline.

The labor force population, which is the number of Americans that are eligible to work, reached a 40-year-low in 2015 at 62.4 percent. The work force has seen a slight increase averaging 62.9 percent so far this year.

But Princeton University economist Alan Krueger released a new study that examines the effects that prescription drugs have on prime aged men’s employment. His research reported that almost half of men aged 25-to-54 years old, who are not in the labor force, take pain medications daily.

“And these figures likely understate the actual proportion of men taking prescription pain medication given the stigma and legal risk associated with reporting taking narcotics,” the study said.

Krueger, who served as the Chief Economist for the U.S. Department of the Treasury under former President Barack Obama, found that 47 percent of non-working prime aged men take pain medications. He also believes this number is higher citing that many of his respondents feared to admit their opioid use. Krueger conducted a longitudinal study, which means he surveyed the same sample of people multiple times over an 11-month span. In his first online study, he surveyed 571 people and had 376 participants participate in follow up questions.

“Nearly half of prime age NLF (not in the labor force) men take pain medication on a daily basis, and in nearly two-thirds of these cases they take prescription pain medication,” Krueger’s study said.

In the second study, Krueger asked how the respondents pay for their pain medication. Two-thirds said that government health insurance programs like Medicaid and Medicare provide financial assistance for their pain prescriptions, with the majority of people saying they rely on Medicaid the most. Roughly 35 percent of non-working prime age men also admitted that they utilize Social Security Disability Insurance.

His study also suggests that there is a strong relationship between low labor participation and location, finding that areas which have high numbers of opioid prescriptions also show substantial decreases in employment.

“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,” the study said.

Krueger’s study acknowledges other factors that contribute to the low labor participation numbers, like more young people attending colleges and the retirement of baby boomers, but he says that the relationship between opioid addiction and employment are certainly intertwined.

In addition to affecting the labor force, the opioid crisis claims more than 140 lives daily, and 50,000 deaths yearly. On August 10th, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, but has yet to file the formal emergency declaration.

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