Conservatives everywhere, rejoice! At last, an expensive illness that can be “treated” by getting the patient a job. Conservatives’ favorite rant about needy people – they just need to get a job – is vindicated and it’s even backed up with decent research. Can we really turn the tide of the opiate addiction tsunami with jobs? Sort of yes. Sort of no.
The connection between unemployment and opioid-death rate was traced in a paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research. When the unemployment rate goes up by one percent in a county, the opioid-death rate goes up 3.6 percent and emergency room visits go up 7 percent. Another study looked at 12 different countries around the world and found that economic recessions and individual unemployment push up illegal drug use.
These findings make sense – an unemployed person is under stress, and drugs, especially opiates, decrease anxiety. On the other hand, how does an unemployed person afford a drug habit? Having less money only pushed the person into cheaper and cheaper drugs as time went on, the researchers found; stealing money or drugs also becomes an option, as the person becomes more desperate.
So, the question is can we cure addicts with good jobs? Not really — the people who are addicted still have to extricate themselves from the drug. But we might be able to have fewer addicts in the future with some clever strategies today.
What would be clever, considering that we cannot prevent unemployment (which goes into the sh&*$% happens category.)? Well, what if unemployed people were treated with respect? What if being unemployed were not viewed as a personal failing? In other words, if being unemployed were somewhat less stressful, then a person might be less likely to turn to drugs for relief.
This strategy is admittedly difficult to put into action without generous unemployment insurance, not to mention a shift in our social attitudes. Nevertheless, let’s entertain all kinds of strategies, and enlarge our focus on health to include much more than medical care. Medical care is rescuing people who have thrown themselves into a fast-moving river; health is working on what inspires them to jump into the river.