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Study: Unemployment Fuels National Drug Epidemic


The National Bureau of Economic Research published a paper on Monday showing how widespread unemployment pushes many American men and women towards deadly drug addictions.

Titled “Macroeconomic Conditions and Opioid Abuse,” the report says:


We use county-level mortality data for the entire U.S. from 1999-2014, and state and county level ED data covering 2002-2014 from a subset of states. We find that as the county unemployment rate increases by 1 percentage point, the opioid death rate (per 100k) rises by 0.19 (3.6%) and the ED visit rate for opioid overdoses (per 100k) increases by 0.95 (7.0%). We also uncover statistically significant increases in the overall drug death rate that are mostly driven by increases in opioid deaths.

These results also hold when performing a state, rather than county, level analysis. In most specifications, the results are primarily driven by adverse events among whites. Additionally, the findings are relatively stable across time periods; they do not pertain only to recession years, but instead represent a more generalizable and previously unexplored connection between economic development and the severe adverse consequences of substance abuse.That is a remarkably consistent and steep relationship between unemployment rates and deaths from opioid drug abuse

The painkiller drugs have become an important contributor to the growing mortality among whites because it is theorized that prescription painkillers are heavily dispensed to lower- and middle-class white people, who can become dependent on them or graduate to illegal substances. Use of pain medication among long-term unemployed men approaches fifty percent, according to some studies.

To be sure, not everyone using pain medication, even potent prescription drugs, is abusing it. There are people in significant distress who need medication. The tremendous increase in both drug use and mortality rates is the problem. It’s sobering to see that problem linked as firmly and precisely to unemployment rates as in the National Bureau of Economic Research study.

Also, given the generosity of welfare programs, it really is a question of needing work rather than money, with all of the physical and spiritual gains delivered by productive activity. Of course there are many individuals who can cope with long-term unemployment in healthy ways, but projected across a vast population, the decline of the workforce casts a distinct Grim Reaper shadow.

Another intriguing study is called “When Work Disappears: Manufacturing Decline and the Falling Marriage-Market Value of Men.” Here again, the researchers have calculated a pronounced relationship between unemployment and an unhealthy social trend: single parenting.

It’s difficult to discuss single parenting as a social phenomenon because individual single parents and their children are not comfortable with the notion there is something “wrong” or inferior with the arrangement. Of course there are many single parents doing well, and children raised in such households who flourish. Our society has been conditioned to devalue traditional marriage and reject the notion that it has inherent advantages.

But again, the negative trend across large populations is indisputable, as authors David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson acknowledge in their introduction, and describe more extensively in the body of the report:

As predicted by a simple model of marital decision-making under uncertainty, we document that adverse shocks to the supply of ‘marriageable’ men reduce the prevalence of marriage and lower fertility but raise the fraction of children born to young and unwed mothers and living in in poor single-parent households. The falling marriage-market value of young men appears to be a quantitatively important contributor to the rising rate of out-of-wedlock childbearing and single-headed childrearing in the United States.

In other words, it’s not a good thing for society to be producing large numbers of young single women struggling to raise children. It is objectively good for stable young couples to have children and raise them. (Yes, it’s important for them to have children at fairly young ages because demographic growth demands a sizable number of families with three or more children, and that’s very difficult to achieve if couples don’t meet and marry when they’re young.)

The introduction of the marriage-market study also quotes a twenty-year-old, but vitally relevant, observation from William Julius Wilson in When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor:

The consequences of high neighborhood joblessness are more devastating than those of high neighborhood poverty. A neighborhood in which people are poor but employed is different from a neighborhood in which people are poor and jobless. Many of today’s problems in the inner-city ghettos – crime, family dissolution, welfare, low levels of social organization, and so on – are fundamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work.

This is proving to be universally true of human nature, in both urban and rural environments, for people of every racial and cultural background.

The loss of manufacturing jobs is painted as especially significant by Autor, Dorn, and Hanson, which is very different from the conventional view that such lost jobs are easily replaceable by Information Age employment. Their study argues that manufacturing jobs have some unique virtues, one of which is giving men the kind of earnings advantage that makes them attractive marriage partners to women.

That observation will not sit well among elites now crazed for “gender neutrality” and determined to use whatever policy hammers and chisels are needed to outlaw male and female biology by next year. Those elites will find it difficult to argue with the data presented in this report, which portrays a cascade of damaging social ills descending from the loss of male earning power relative to women: “Shocks to male-intensive manufacturing industries are particularly destabilizing to marriage-markets.”

The authors are quite blunt about what the decline of the manufacturing sector has done to American society:

Adverse shocks to local employment opportunities stemming from rising international competition from China in manufactured goods yield a fall in both male and female employment; a reduction in men’s relative earnings, particularly at the lower tail of the earnings distribution; an increase in the rate of male mortality from risky and unhealthful behaviors; a reduction in the net availability of marriage-age males in affected labor markets; a reduction in the fraction of young adults entering marriage; a fall in fertility accompanied by a rise in the fraction of births to teen and unmarried mothers; and a sharp jump in the fraction of children living in impoverished and, to a lesser degree, single-headed households.

If that paragraph doesn’t sail far enough into politically incorrect waters for you, the authors later argue that shocks to female-intensive industries “have more modest effects on overall fertility but reduce the share of births to teens and unmarried mothers, thus raising in-wedlock births and reducing the fraction of children living in single-headed households.”

(It should be noted, as the authors do many times throughout the course of the paper, that these relationships between employment and marriage for the two sexes are significant but not all-powerful, and other forces often come into play.)

Negative trends multiply each other in a downward spiral. The demise of stable two-parent homes sends a growing number of children into life with huge economic disadvantages. Dissolution of the family also dissolves inter-generational family wealth, such as property passed from parents to children. Men who don’t have wives and children in their lives are missing important resources when they confront midlife despair. Young people are missing bright examples of what the future could hold for them, contributing to the growing sense that “the American Dream is over.”

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