The effects of the opioid crisis in America are wide-ranging, with the most glaring pitfalls coming in the form of families irreparably strained, friendships evaporated, and human lives lost. This humanistic view of drug addiction in America is most poignant, but from a national standpoint, the effects that widespread opioid abuse has had on the workforce is not to be ignored.
A survey of more than 500 companies conducted by the National Safety Council found that 70% of U.S. employers polled continue to deal with “the direct impact of prescription drug misuse in their workplaces.” Prescription drugs were not the only drug of abuse that employers have dealt with on an increasing basis. In 2015, the number of workers who tested positive for other illegal drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamine, was at its highest in a decade.
The implications of a workforce addicted to drugs, or one using with regularity that falls short of addiction, are obvious and the danger of such implications vary by the industry. The primary takeaway, however, is that an increasing percentage of Americans are unable to live their daily lives without achieving some sort of high, even if it costs them their job.
But, for better or worse, at least the subjects of this study had attempted to hold down a job, with most of them doing so successfully for an indeterminate period.
Other, more recent reports have found that as many as 50% of working-age non-college graduates in America may be unable to fill skilled job vacancies because of drug addiction. Some surveyed employers and economist stated that 25% of job applicants do not pass pre-hiring drug tests. Others have stated that 50% is a more realistic figure.
This increasing number of Americans unable or unwilling to kick a habit to remain gainfully employed has manifested itself in the number of “disabled” working-age adults. That number has steadily risen since the 70s, when it hovered around 2%. The 2016 survey found that 5.7% of men and 5.6% of women did not work in the past year because of a reported illness or disability, and there is no way to tell exactly how many of those instances were due to drug abuse.
More shocking is the newfound equality in the percentages of men and women who listed themselves as unable to work. With few exceptions, men have historically remained out of the workforce because of illness and disability at a greater rate than women. The recent parity in the percentage of men and women has been explained quite simply by some who monitor the state of drug abuse and unemployment in America: drug addiction does not discriminate by gender.
There could be other reasons for the increase in Americans dropping out of the workforce due to health reasons. Increased levels of alcohol abuse and other unhealthy habits, including diet, have remained issues among young Americans. However, based on what we know about the grip of opioid, heroin, and now fentanyl addiction- particularly in the rural, rust belt regions of America– it stands to reason that drug addiction has played a significant role in the increasing numbers of non-working, able-bodied Americans.
It has been suggested that the link between drug abuse and unemployment in regions that have experienced the flight of industry is cyclical. Few jobs and wage stagnation in the region have caused wide spread despair and disaffection, which often leads to drug abuse as a coping mechanism. In turn, the development of a drug addiction prevents one from holding down steady employment, resulting in the increased disability/illness figures which have emerged. Entire towns, cities, and regions plagued by disproportionate amounts of hard-drug abuse can, and has, had astoundingly negative results.
Anecdotal evidence supports these theories. One West Virginia company reported that approximately half of applicants "either fail or refuse to take mandatory pre-employment drug screens." Even the head of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, has attributed a decline in labor force participation to opioid use. In three federally sanctioned reports, employers cite applicants’ inability to pass a drug screen as a primary barrier to employment.
The effects of able-bodied adults remaining unemployed in increasing numbers will likely have generational effects. Many of these young, non-college educated adults are defying the “success sequence,” having children before finding steady employment. The stress of children contributes further to the stress and disenchantments of life in an already economically ravaged region, in turn leading more young people into patterns of drug abuse.
As more and more children grow up in households where parents do not work, a new generational normal will likely be established. Drug addiction often breaks up households, and broken families in which one or both parents do not have steady employment means children will be raised in situations that are far from healthy, if not traumatic. This immediate, direct consequence will likely pale in comparison to the long-term effects of a child growing up without a working parent as a role model.
While the opioid crisis that has escalated into widespread heroin and fentanyl abuse has immediate effects on families, friendships, employers, and the national economy as a whole, it is quite likely that the problem will get worse before it gets better, if it ever does. Nobody has come up with an effective solution to stymie the spread of drug abuse, and it has continued to ravage some communities more than others, and undeniably the nation as a whole.
Until a solution is created, the unemployment numbers due to drug abuse will continue to rise, masked as “illness and disability.” Children will internalize these patterns of joblessness and drug dependence. The chance that this behavior becomes generational is statistically more likely than not, which is an alarming reality for Americans to face.