How the opioid crisis is depressing America’s labor force

It’s been a decade since the financial crisis drove up the unemployment rate in the U.S. and forced people in the prime of their careers to give up looking for work.

An arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen, also known as Percocet, in New York. A new report finds a link between workforce participation and the prescription rate of opioids in the U.S. Patrick Sison/AP

Even today, as employers add jobs at a furious pace, the workforce participation rate still hasn’t recovered. And now researchers think they know one reason why: the opioid crisis.

According to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the percentage of people of prime working age – between 25 and 54 – who are employed or looking for work is well below the rate of other developed countries.

The labor force participation rate has been climbing back up since the Great Recession, and among prime workers it reached a low of 80.6 percent in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The last jobs report in May of this year marked the lowest unemployment rate since 2000 at 3.8 percent, but the workforce participation rate of prime-age workers only rose by about 1 percentage point. In 2016, Italy was the only OECD member country with a lower workforce participation rate of prime-age men than the U.S.

The OECD report also states that opioid prescription rates tend to be higher in areas where labor force participation is lower. Princeton University economist Alan Krueger found that the increase in opioid prescribing can account for 20 to 25 percent of the decline in the number of people who are employed or looking for jobs.

While there are a variety of factors contributing to the decline, Krueger tells Here & Now’s Robin Young that “the opioid crisis has compounded the problem.” Krueger, who also served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama, conducted a county-by-county study of the link between the depressed workforce and the opioid crisis.

Samantha Raphelson/NPR