If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you know there is no current shortage of issues to worry about. North Korea is lobbing missiles over Japan and ISIS continues to terrorize. Here in America, parts of the country have recently been under water while other parts have been burning. With so much going on, you could be forgiven for missing a recent piece published in The New York Times which revealed that, since 1990, deaths in this country from drug overdoses have increased by over 500%, killing more Americans than car accidents, gun homicides, and HIV (not to mention floods, fires, and terrorists).
A common theory espoused by many of the “talking heads” we see on the news and in politics is that unemployment is largely to blame for this great epidemic of addiction, and that so many Americans, particularly in depressed and impoverished parts of the country, are turning to drugs as a response to the stress and sadness brought on by joblessness. But though there is an undeniable correlation between unemployment and drug addiction, the link between cause and effect is far less clear.
On their own, both unemployment and drug addiction have corrosive effects on the individuals who suffer from them, as well as their families and larger communities. Once these two issues become tangled together, however, problems increase significantly, creating a kind of chicken-or-egg paradox that is exponentially more difficult to address and rectify. There are countless studies illustrating the relationship between drug addiction and economic insecurity and instability. Addiction tends to be twice as high amongst those who are unemployed in comparison to those who have jobs. A person who suffers from a drug addiction is far less likely gain or sustain employment. And a person without a job often lacks the structure and resources necessary to obtain treatment for an addiction.
But the tendency to attribute the cause of addiction to unemployment, as is increasingly the case by both politicians and the media, is both misguided and misinformed. The rise in opiate addictions within small, economically depressed towns across America may, on the surface seem easy to blame on the shrinking middle class and the decreasing availability of jobs for those without college educations, but such blame ignores some important statistics. According to Sam Quinones, author of the acclaimed 2016 book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, “In southern Ohio, where heroin has hit like a pestilence…unemployment in many of these counties is at its lowest level in years, sometimes decades.” He goes on to report that, “In several counties [he] visited employers reported that more than half their job applicants couldn’t pass a drug screen.”
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse has reported that 90% of addictions begin when people are in their teens and early adulthood. And while there is no question that addiction rates are significantly higher in economically depressed areas, with unemployment rates actually falling and statistics which show that most addictions begin before the age when people enter the workforce, the theory that unemployment is the cause of this rise in addiction quickly loses footing. The truth, as is so often the case, is much more nebulous and multi-faceted than we are often led to believe. The National Bureau of Economic Research made clear some of these complications in a recent study on the issue, ultimately suggesting that the “dominate factor linking macroeconomic conditions to health outcomes … may be that fatal and near-fatal abuse of opioids often (and increasingly, over time) reflect[s] a physical manifestation of mental health problems that have long been known to increase in periods of economic decline." In light of this information, it could be useful in going forward to address the issue not in terms of physical health, but mental health.
With a problem so complex, there is not one single explanation or solution. And yet we live in a time during which blame and solutions are tossed around like political slogans. Likewise, issues such as wide-spread addiction and unemployment don’t tend to make headlines like other crises. They don’t come ready-made with soundbites and shocking images, and they aren’t the sort of material that lends itself to adaptation for a big summer blockbuster. The story of the America’s addiction crisis doesn’t have a clear origin. There is no single villain and no obvious hero waiting in the wings to ride in and save the day. And yet, if the situation is not addressed, it will become a full-blown catastrophe, one which affects us all. Addiction spreads through communities like a contagion, and whether or not the case can be made that unemployment helped cause the problem, it will without a doubt, be made worse by the problem.
Finding a solution for the spike in America’s addiction crisis will no doubt be a multi-faceted endeavor requiring the work and commitment of numerous individuals and organizations. And the good news is that there are already a good number of individuals and organizations committed to improving the problem. The Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships (more commonly known as the Partnership Center) is an initiative of the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs by which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services partners with faith-based and community organizations in order to serve individuals and communities in need. One the organization’s primary points of focus is the opiate crisis, and it addresses the problem at the local level, offering support and spreading awareness to those suffering from addiction, as well as to their families and larger communities.
But in order to truly address this national crisis, there needs to be national awareness, as well as a national understanding that the problem and the solution are not so obvious as they may at first appear on the surface. The answer is not as simple as bringing back jobs or reopening factories. And those who would like us to believe that this is the case are putting all of us at risk. If a major national newspaper reported that the number of Americans killed by terrorists since 1990 had gone up by 500%, people would likely be screaming in the streets, calling their representatives, demanding action. This is not a small problem, and the solution will not be small either. It’s going to take all of us. We need to know about this issue, and we need to care about it, and we need to commit to saying to those in power, “This has to change.”