Is There A Link Between Unemployment Rates And The Opioid Crisis?

By Paul Fuhr 08/29/17

A new report has uncovered a shocking connection between opioid deaths and unemployment. 

Businesswoman holding a box of her belongings.

Just because financial reporters applaud a historically low national unemployment rate (currently resting at 4.3%), it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Americans. Quite the opposite.

Earlier this summer, a mind-boggling Blue Cross Blue Shield report found that the number of people diagnosed with opioid addiction had skyrocketed 493% over the last seven years. (That’s not a typo, by the way, so consider the magnitude of that statistic for a second: 493%) On paper, this makes zero sense. A country with such high employment should be making huge strides with innovations, cracking things like cold fusion, robotic surgery, and self-driving cars—not backsliding into record numbers of drug arrests, failed drug tests, a drug epidemic, and a vanishing workforce. 

But for years, experts, academics, lawmakers, psychologists and researchers alike have argued otherwise, furtively hunting down answers that surround the alarming, constantly shifting sands of substance abuse in the U.S. It’s a mystery that’s confounded almost everyone in search of an answer. Leave it to mathematicians, though, to find the silver bullet.

According to a new study authored by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), it’s hidden in plain sight. The answer rests right within the 4.3% unemployment rate itself: that’s where the problem truly lies. In fact, the Bureau contends, the 4.3% doesn’t tell the whole story.

Just last month, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen raised eyebrows when she decried opioids as the reason for our declining work force: “I don't know if it's causal or symptomatic of long-running economic maladies that have affected these communities and particularly affected workers who have seen their job opportunities decline," Yellen said.

She also added that the U.S. is "the only advanced nation that I know of where in these communities we're actually, especially among less-educated men, seeing an increase in death rates partly reflecting opioid use.”

In fact, the rising number of drug-related deaths can be mathematically charted, diagrammed and traced across a very bleak chart of human behavior. In many ways, it all comes down to “a rise in ‘deaths of despair.'” Put another way: there’s the previously reported trend of suicide rising out of economic despair due to no jobs, pride in career, or unmet expectations. 

What’s different about the new study, however, is how it inextricably links unemployment rates to opioid deaths. The study extrapolates death rates against macroeconomic “shocks.” (A “shock” is mathematically described as an unforeseen circumstance like, say, the 1974 gas crisis.) Whenever the unemployment rate inches up or a society undergoes a macroeconomic shift (loss of insurance, for example), the report argues, so too do opioid deaths.

Judging from the data, though, the results are impossible to ignore. One single percentage point has a massive ripple effect: “Researchers find that a one-percentage point increase in a county’s unemployment rate is associated with an additional 0.2 opioid-involved drug-related deaths per 100,000 county residents, a 3.6 increase relative to the average rate of 5.4 per 100,000,” the report said. The authors also warn of a 3.3 increase in the rate of all drug-related deaths. 

The study lays bare a pretty simple explanation: in the drying-puddle of untaken job opportunities has grown a malaria-like breeding ground for drug-related deaths and behaviors. And that puddle is bound to grow as more of it becomes exposed. Put another way: it’s a corrosive number that’s eating away at the core of a workforce that largely goes unnoticed. After all, the people who don’t have a job aren’t really reported on. 

Furthermore, the 4.3% unemployment rate doesn’t capture people who don’t have jobs and are—therefore—“kept out of the spotlight as the country battles the opioid crisis.”

The report zeroes in on the problem but doesn’t propose actual solutions, like so many other similar reports do. It coldly disassembles a problem that plagues millions of people across the country, ignoring the much larger anguish going on at the heart of Americans.

One report tried to describe the despair in a human way: “The working-class folk feel particular anguish, they explain, having suffered wrenching economic and social change,” The Economist commented. It’s true: As the county unemployment rate increases by one percentage point, the opioid death rate per 100,000 rises by 0.19 (3.6%) and the opioid overdose [ER] visit rate per 100,000 increases by 0.95 (7.0%). 

In many ways, researchers have uncovered the real problem through their math: they’ve roughly diagrammed a snake swallowing its own tail. For every near-fatal abuse of an opioid due to a macroeconomic condition, there’s a mental health problem that guarantees repeated drug use.

And just as the NBER report stated, “With the increased availability of prescription opioids (and reductions in heroin prices), it seems likely that the consumption of these drugs rises when economic conditions worsen and that some of this increased use leads to adverse outcomes including [ER] visits or death."

No matter what academics reveal, one thing is for certain: we need to build working programs that anticipate these "macroeconomic conditions" for when the bottom eventually falls out on the people who are most susceptible. It’s clear from reports like the NBER’s that by looking ahead, we can help countless others from becoming otherwise avoidable statistics.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.