Economy & Business

Out of Work and Taking Pain Pills

(Dreamstime image: Gordan)
The plight of American men who leave the labor force.

Just a few months ago, hardly anyone was talking about American men leaving the workforce, even though more than 10 percent of males 25–54 are neither employed nor looking for work.

Now it seems like everyone is talking.

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has a new book identifying structural changes in the economy, the rise of mass incarceration, and increasing disability claims as possible drivers of the trend. In a paper for the Center for Immigration Studies, Jason Richwine points out that unlike native men, immigrant men don’t seem to have problems finding jobs, even if they’re high-school dropouts. Another new paper advances the intriguing hypothesis that modern video games are just so good that some young men are happy sitting around playing them all day.

The latest contribution comes from Princeton’s Alan B. Krueger, one of the nation’s leading economists. It’s a broad look at labor trends among various demographic groups — but its horrifying news peg is that in surveys, about 45 percent of 25- to 54-year-old non-working men report that they took a painkiller the previous day, double the rate of their peers in the labor force. These men weren’t just taking over-the-counter medicines such as Tylenol, either: Two-thirds of them took prescription painkillers.

The paper raises serious questions about the health of our workforce, the functioning of our disability system, and our struggles with drug addiction.

Krueger gives reasons to believe that these men have genuine health problems, and that they aren’t being kept out of work by negative incentives in the welfare state. He reports that one-third of men out of the workforce say they have at least one disability, 43 percent rate their own health as fair or poor, and 40 percent say pain prevents them from working a full-time job they’re otherwise qualified for. Prime-age men out of the workforce say they spend about half of their time in pain.

As for the welfare state, three-quarters of prime-age men out of the workforce aren’t on the nation’s main disability program, and even one-third of disabled non-working men receive no financial assistance at all (though government benefits are often underreported in surveys). Those who do receive assistance overwhelmingly say the programs’ rules don’t keep them from working more.

But there are a few things that don’t quite add up. Men with disabilities have become less likely to work since 2008, and there are some interesting patterns as to which types of disabilities cause men to leave the labor force. For example, only about one-third of the deaf or hard of hearing and one-half of the blind or otherwise poor-sighted are out of the workforce, compared with 70 percent of those with difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions.

(Viewed from the other direction, 16 percent of men not in the labor force say they have trouble concentrating, etc., while 4 percent say they have trouble seeing and 4 percent say they have trouble hearing. The most common ailment among non-working men, at 20 percent, is difficulty walking or climbing stairs.)

Further, disability claims have risen substantially in recent decades, a time period in which jobs have generally become less physically demanding. The question of how much pain one should suffer before leaving work is subjective, but it seems that previous generations of men went to work with disabilities that keep today’s men at home. Also interesting: White men out of the labor force were more likely than black or Hispanic men to report disabilities (36 percent, 32 percent, and 29 percent respectively).

Lastly, though Krueger doesn’t discuss it, his findings must be read with this country’s drug-addiction epidemic in mind. Opioid prescriptions exploded in the 1990s, and prescription-pill overdoses have quadrupled since then: Over 14,000 succumbed in 2014, more than died of murder. Better pain management might be key to getting these men back to work, but any solution involving stronger medications could bring with it unintended consequences.

Low-skilled young men are in crisis. They are working less than their fathers did, and less than men in other developed countries; they say they are in pain, and they are taking prescription medications at alarming rates, sometimes overdosing. As a society we must get to the bottom of why this is happening.

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