A new paper points to the opioid epidemic as one likely reason why many men have been dropping out of the workforce in Maine and across the nation.

Princeton economist Alan Krueger’s new analysis, published in the fall 2017 edition of the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, tackles a potential driver behind what has been called “ America’s invisible crisis”: Despite their traditional role as breadwinners, the share of adult men who are working or looking for work has been spiraling down for half a century.

An increase in opioid prescriptions from 1999 to 2015 could account for about 20 percent of the observed decline in men’s labor force participation during that time, Krueger found.

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“Labor force participation fell more in counties where more opioids were prescribed, controlling for the area’s share of manufacturing employment and individual characteristics,” he wrote.

[Thousands of Maine men are missing from the workforce, and no one really knows why]

He did not determine a causal effect. For instance, are men turning to opiates and other drugs because they are out of work, or are they leaving work because they are addicted to drugs?

“I suspect causality runs in both directions, but I have not been able to untangle the direction of causality,” Krueger wrote in an email to the BDN in March. “But I do believe that the problem of excessive use of pain medication and the high reported incidence of feeling pain will need to be addressed in order to draw many of these individuals back to the labor force.”

Previously Krueger found that nearly half of men ages 25 to 54 who aren’t in the national labor force take pain medication daily.

[185 people died in Maine from drug overdoses in first half of 2017]

In 1970, about 5 percent of Maine’s men ages 25 to 54 were out of the workforce, according to the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information. In 2015, about 15 percent were missing from the labor force.

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In 2015 that represented about 37,000 Maine men in their prime who were not officially working or looking for work. More men still work than women. But over the last half century, as women have steadily entered the workforce, men have been leaving it.

While men have been leaving the workforce across the United States, the trend is more acute in Maine. It has the eighth highest rate of male disengagement in the country, trailing only economically depressed southern states such as Mississippi and Alabama, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...