Researchers at The Ohio State University have connected unemployment and underemployment to the opioid epidemic in Ohio, where drug overdose deaths were the second highest per capita nationwide in 2016.
Overdose deaths have not been evenly distributed across Ohio. The regions of the state experiencing lagging economic growth and few job prospects had higher rates of people dying by overdoses than other regions, said Mark Partridge, the C. William Swank Chair in Rural-Urban Policy with Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).
In addition to Partridge, the report’s authors include Mike Betz, assistant professor in Ohio State’s Department of Human Sciences; Mark Rembert, co-founder of Energize Clinton County, a community economic development nonprofit; and Bo Feng, a Swank research associate.
“We believe that it is the lack of economic opportunity that leads to the current opioid crisis among certain demographic groups,” Feng said.
“If you become unemployed, that may not trigger you to use drugs. But, if you stay unemployed, over time, that could cause financial stress and stress on a marriage, and the accumulated effect of that could lead you to drug use and potentially an overdose.”
On Monday (March 19), President Trump announced a proposal to combat opioid abuse through prevention and drug treatment, as well as sentencing drug traffickers to the death penalty.
Among the contributing factors to the national opioid crisis, the increased availability of prescription opioids and heroin has dominated the public discussion. Less emphasized are the economic struggles that put some at risk of using drugs, particularly in rural areas where job prospects are often limited. These areas have been especially hard hit by the crisis, though it’s not clear to what extent a struggling economy contributed to drug use. Since 2017, the rate of overdose deaths in rural areas has surpassed that in urban areas across the United States.
In Ohio, overdose deaths were strongly linked to educational attainment, so individuals with just a high school education had higher rates of fatal overdoses than those with additional education, the Ohio State researchers found.
In 2015, the drug overdose rate for Ohio residents with just a high school degree was 14 times higher than for those with a college degree, according to the researchers’ analysis.
That’s partly because people without a college degree were more likely to take manual labor jobs, which can be physically demanding, Partridge said.
“There’s a reason some needed pain medication,” he said.
Also, their earnings on average were not as good as the generation before them. Decades ago, Ohioans could earn the equivalent of $25 an hour or more in union positions, after adjusting for inflation. Then automation and outsourcing of labor overseas changed that, causing a decline in the number of those once high-paying manufacturing jobs. Many were replaced with jobs that pay closer to the minimum wage, Partridge said.
As a result, a lot of people were not earning what their parents did, and yet they had expectations of being able to afford the standard of living they had growing up. Men between the ages of 35 and 45 were particularly affected, Partridge said.
“Their fathers did well. Even their grandfathers did well. And then they’re stuck with service jobs. Dead-end jobs. They looked upon themselves as if they had failed,” Partridge said.
Those stresses may underlie how a struggling economy is linked to opioid abuse, he said.
Those without college degrees were particularly at a loss. In the 1970s, the wage gap between people with only a high school degree and those who graduated from college was only about 40 percent. Now that gap is 80-90 percent, Partridge said.
“There’s nothing that I see that would reverse that trend without significant changes,” he said.
Taking Measure of Ohio’s Opioid Crisis is available to download free online at go.osu.edu/takingmeasure