The Democratic senator from West Virginia — where the opioid overdose death rate ranked highest in the nation in 2015 — connected the state’s opioid use with its battered workforce.
Sen. Joe Manchin told MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt that the opioid crisis is destroying families and wrecking the state’s economic future.
"I've got the greatest workers in the world," Manchin said on Oct. 22. "But I'm down to around 50 percent of the adult workers who are actually working now because of addiction or conviction."
We wondered to what extent opioids are to blame for low employment in West Virginia.
Manchin’s office told us he learned about the effect opioid abuse has on the state’s employment through "hundreds of meetings with business executives, state workforce and labor experts, at his job fairs and with community leaders across the state." The office also clarified Manchin’s comment, saying people who struggle with addiction or have been convicted in crimes related to opioid use in the past often have trouble getting jobs.
Experts agreed that the opioid crisis affects employment rates in West Virginia, but they don’t know how much.
Manchin is about on the mark when he says about half of West Virginia’s adults are employed. What’s less certain is the role opioid abuse plays.
To measure this, the Bureau of Labor Statistics looks at two key figures: the employment-population ratio (the percentage of people over the age of 16 who are employed) and the labor force participation rate (the percentage of people over the age of 16 who are either employed or actively looking for a job).
The latest estimates place West Virginia at a 50.4 percent employment-population ratio and a 53.1 percent labor force participation rate in September. By comparison, the United States’ employment-participation ratio in September was at 60.4 percent and the labor force participation rate was 63.1 percent.
(Because the labor force doesn’t typically include students and retirees, college towns or populations with more elderly individuals might sometimes appear to have lower workforce participation.)
West Virginia has historically had one of the lowest labor participation rates in the United States. Since the late 1970s, as far back as the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data on labor participation rates goes, the state’s rate has remained below 58 percent. Similarly, the employment-population ratio has not exceeded 55 percent.
A 2015 study of West Virginia’s labor participation rate conducted by the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy found that the state’s higher-than-average elderly population, percentage of people on work disability and poor overall health were major factors in the participation rate. In addition, lower rates of educational attainment beyond a high school degree had prevented young workers from obtaining jobs that require more education.
Where does that leave opioid addiction? Experts say that’s an unanswered question.
"While I'm sure addiction and the opioid crisis have played a role in hurting West Virginia's workforce, I'm not sure you can attribute much of the state's decline to it," said Sean O’Leary, a senior policy analyst with the center. He also noted that the state’s recent decline coincides with the national recession.
At the national level, a September 2017 paper out of Princeton University suggested opioid use could account for 20 percent of the drop in men’s labor force participation from 1999 to 2015 and 25 percent of the decline in women’s participation.
And the problem has drawn the attention of Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, who testified to the epidemic’s effects on national labor during a July 13 Senate Banking Committee meeting.
"I do think it is related to declining labor force participation among prime-age workers," Yellen said. "I don’t know if it’s causal or if it’s a symptom of long-running economic maladies that have affected these communities and particularly affected workers who have seen their job opportunities decline."
But there is no specific research related to West Virginia.
Anecdotal evidence suggests employers nationwide have struggled in the past several years to find potential workers who are drug-free and healthy enough to perform required job tasks.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland also cited the problem in a September 2016 report on West Virginia, which said local employers contacted by the reserve bank indicated "educational attainment and social factors such as frequent opioid and heroin use" limited the employers from finding the workers they need.
Still, the exact statistical impact for the state remains unclear. Jessica Ice, an assistant professor at West Virginia University’s Institute for Labor Studies and Research, said she would be hesitant to attribute the entire decline in employment to opioids.
"I think we are still learning about the extent of the problem here as the epidemic continues to wreak havoc on the state of West Virginia," Ice said. "While surely there is an impact I cannot even say what came first, disability and then prescription drug abuse? Hopelessness over the state of the economy and resorting to drugs to cope?"
Manchin said the reason for the decline of working adults in West Virginia to "around 50 percent" of adults is due to the state’s opioid epidemic.
His estimate of workforce participation is correct, and recent research at the national level suggests opioids have hurt workers and employers looking for healthy employees. Experts on West Virginia’s economy think the health crisis has affected participation in the workforce; they just don’t yet know to what extent. In any event, a number of other factors are likely driving the decline.
Manchin’s claim is partially accurate, but lacks context that might give a different understanding of the data. We rate this statement Half True.