Economic development is often seen as a way to boost quality of life. Bringing more economic activity to an area is touted as a way to increase the number of employed people, the level of wages or both. And those increases can then lead to more tax revenue for governments, increased public services and attraction of more workers and businesses.
But a less examined effect of economic development is its usefulness in addressing the current drug epidemic plaguing communities across the nation.
A recent study published by JAMA Internal Medicine shows just how directly economic activity can sometimes affect drug use. The study published on Dec. 30 found a strong correlation between communities that lost an automotive manufacturing plant between 1999 and 2016 and an increase in drug overdose deaths.
The study looked at 29 counties that were exposed to an automotive plant closure and 83 counties that did not lose their automotive plants during the 17-year window, which lines up with the rise of our current opioid drug crisis.
In counties that lost an automotive plant, the study's "estimates imply that" the rate of opioid overdose deaths had risen by 85% five years later. In counties where the plants stayed open, the overdose death rate did not rise.
Those affected most by the automotive plant closures were working-age, non-hispanic white men, according to the study. And the authors wrote that the economic opportunity-overdose connection argument is "most relevant for worsening population health trends in the midwestern and southern United States, (which have) experienced some of the largest increases in opioid overdose mortality."
We think similar findings would result from looking at any and all closures of large-scale employers. When jobs disappear and people feel they have less economic opportunity, they are less happy. And they are more likely to turn to substances that can ease their pain, even if those substances ultimately do far more harm.
"Our findings illustrate the importance of declining economic opportunity as an underlying factor associated with the opioid overdose crisis," the authors wrote. "In particular, our findings, combined with a growing body of research demonstrating adverse associations between trade-related industrial decline and drug overdose mortality, lend support to the view that the current opioid overdose crisis may be associated in part with the same structural changes to the U.S. economy that have been responsible for worsening overall mortality among less-educated adults since the 1980s."
Put simply, fewer jobs equal more drug problems. But perhaps it's more useful to flip that statement around: More jobs mean fewer drug problems.
Existing employers and new ones attracted to a community serve as protective shields to some extent against the rise of drug addiction.
That makes economic development incredibly important to the fight against addiction and all of its negative effects. But it doesn't mean we have been addressing the opioid crisis the wrong way.
Problems such as over-prescribing dangerously addictive drugs; over-policing and over-jailing of people for addiction; and cultural stigma that prevent people from seeking help are all incredibly important pieces of the puzzle we must solve.
Economic development is definitely another piece to the puzzle we should not overlook or ignore.