How The Opioid Crisis May Negatively Affect The US Workforce

By Beth Leipholtz 03/20/19

A recent op-ed explored how the opioid epidemic may be driving down the number of employees in the US workforce.

people in the US workforce

The opioid crisis is affecting the workforce—especially when it comes to men, according to an opinion piece in Bloomberg

The op-ed, written by columnist Noah Smith, states that the number of men in the workforce has been decreasing for years—especially since the 2000s. Since 2009, women’s participation has also been decreasing. 

“Much of the decline is due to educated people taking early retirement, or to people staying in school longer as education becomes more important,” Smith writes. “But a sizable chunk may be due to drug problems, especially among men.”

In 2017, Smith notes, a Princeton University economist named Alan Krueger looked into the relationship between the use of pain medication and not being in the workforce.

Krueger's findings showed that in early 2010, 43.5% of males aged 25 to 54 who were not in the labor force admitted to using a pain medication the day before. In contrast, Krueger found that for those who were currently working or searching for work, that percentage fell to about 20%. 

Krueger also noted that in countries with a higher opioid prescription rate, the number of those in the workforce fell accordingly. 

However, Smith points out, it can be difficult to determine the cause in situations like this. “It might be that people started using drugs because they were disabled or had no chance of finding a job, rather than the reverse,” he writes.  

Smith also cites a recent study from economists Dionissi Aliprantis, Kyle Fee and Mark Schweitzer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland which examined the cause more deeply.

The economists argue that if those without a job turn to opioids, then areas affected most by the Great Recession would likely have seen a larger jump in use. But they state that this was not the case, suggesting that drug use is actually the cause of decreasing workforce numbers. 

However, Smith points out that the results of their study are by no means conclusive.

“First of all, the authors’ measure of temporary changes in labor demand could have statistical problems that make it unreliable for this sort of measurement,” he writes. “Second, the effect of weak labor markets on drug use might be longer term—people who think they’ll be unemployed only briefly might not turn to drugs, while people who see no prospects might start using heroin or fentanyl.”

In conclusion, Smith notes that evidence points strongly to the idea that the opioid epidemic is negatively affecting the U.S. economy and workforce, and that more action is needed to address it.

“It will be a generation before the impact of the horrendous opioid epidemic fades from the national statistics,” Smith concludes. “But with the right steps now, the U.S. might at least be able to end it more quickly.”

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.