One in five Americans know someone who has been addicted to opioids

Fears of being tainted.
Fears of being tainted.
Image: Reuters/Bryan Woolston
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The US is facing an opioid crisis that is like no other country in the world. In 2016, 64,000 people died of an overdose, primarily due to opioid use. For the past five years, the Federal Reserve has been conducting a national study on economic wellbeing (pdf). Last year, it started asking questions about opioid usage. The Fed found that one in five adults in the US personally knows someone who has been addicted to opioids or prescription painkillers.

This startling figure reveals the reach of the crisis, and explains why it has been declared a national emergency. The Fed also wanted to assess how opioid addiction links to economic wellbeing—specifically, if the increase in addiction is part of what Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “deaths of despair.”

Exposure to the opioid epidemic is higher for whites than for ethnic minorities, and slightly higher for those without a college degree. Case and Deaton argue that groups facing worsening economic conditions—like the white working-class with low education in America’s rust belt—are more susceptible to addiction-related deaths. Others argue that the increase in opioid use is down to other factors, including the supply of these drugs.

According to the Fed’s research, 25% of white people are personally exposed to the opioid crisis, compared to 12% of blacks and 15% of Hispanics.

The Fed then looked at how people assessed the state of their local economy and the national economy, to see if the “deaths of despair” hypothesis held true. They found that the majority of people think their local economy is good or excellent, as shown in the table below. That said, people who knew someone addicted to opioids had a slightly less favorable view than people who didn’t.

The same trend applies to the national economy, though optimism is lower overall. The Fed points out, however, that local unemployment rates are similar for people exposed to opioids as for those that aren’t. “Subjective assessments of economic conditions do show more support for the ‘deaths of despair’ hypothesis than objective outcomes, like local unemployment,” according to the Fed report.

This implies that the roots of the opioid crisis aren’t obviously linked to economic conditions in places where the addiction rate is high. But perceptions of economic wellbeing shouldn’t be dismissed just because they don’t align with the data.