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Unemployed, Single and Addicted: The Plight of the Modern American Working Man

As we’ve written about extensively here at MEL, America’s working-class men are in the midst of a genuine public health crisis. Between the loss of stable employment and the corresponding decline in marriage rates, among other factors, men who live in working-class cities in the U.S. are experiencing profound economic, social and mental health challenges.

The high rate of drug abuse in these areas is only making matters worse.

For example, The New York Times published a frustrating story on Monday about manufacturing jobs going unfilled because otherwise qualified candidates can’t pass their drug tests.

It’s not that local workers lack the skills for these positions, many of which do not even require a high school diploma but pay $15 to $25 an hour and offer full benefits. Rather, the problem is that too many applicants — nearly half, in some cases — fail a drug test.

Unable to fill their open positions and operate at maximum efficiency, these factories often end up losing contracts to competitors (some of them in other countries). Columbiana Boiler in Ohio loses out on about $200,000 worth of business per year to a German firm because of the “manpower shortage,” according to the Times. Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of the applicants at nearby Warren Fabricating & Machining in Hubbard, Ohio, fail a drug test. Last year, the company paid $300,000 in medical expenses to help cure an employee’s baby of an opiate addiction. Chicago-based manufacturer ThyssenKrupp North America has seen an increase in failed drug tests, as well.

Much of the recent focus on labor issues has been about the loss of blue-collar jobs to developing countries, where labor is far cheaper than in the U.S. But these are readily available American jobs — ones that could be immediately filled were it not for the applicants’ drug use.

The article says the issue is primarily due to the opioid epidemic sweeping through lower-class neighborhoods across the country, and the widespread use of marijuana (which is still illegal in the majority of states, though it carries far less stigma than it did just a decade ago).

What the article fails to mention, however, is that our nation’s growing drug problem disproportionately affects working-class white men. Heroin addiction rates were similar between white and non-white Americans from 2001 to 2002, according to a Columbia University study from earlier this year. But the biggest gains in heroin use from then to 2013 was among young, working-class white men.

It’s no coincidence that the Obamacare alternative Republicans failed to pass last week included an amendment apportioning $45 billion to fight opioid addiction. Now that heroin is more directly affecting members of their base, conservative politicians are increasingly in favor of ditching mass incarceration in favor of a more progressive, treatment-based approach to drug use.

And treatment is indeed the only way to mitigate the drug and labor issue, because easing drug restrictions in these workplaces isn’t an option. Columbiana Boiler factory floor workers often handle products that weigh in excess of 100 tons, and an absent-minded mistake can easily result in death. Allowing known drug users to handle such responsibility is far too big of a liability, explains company CEO Michael Sherwin.

On a larger scale: If you want to better understand the hostility and resentment that defines our political climate (especially as it exists online), it’s instructive to look at the unique confluence of economic and societal challenges facing lower-class men in this country.

They were raised to believe a man’s worth is directly tied to earning money and adequately providing for his family, and they remember a time when a man with a high school degree could reasonably expect to do so. They’ve since inherited a world, however, where it’s virtually impossible to earn a middle-class living without a college degree (that they often couldn’t afford in the first place).

Their diminished job prospects make them undesirable as husbands, so they are less likely get married. Their friends who did go to college have long since fled their hometowns for bustling metropolises, where white-collar jobs are available, but the only opportunities for high school graduates are in jobs once dominated by women (the so-called “pink economy”).

It’s easy to see how this scenario breeds class resentment. But there are encouraging signs that problems afflicting working-class communities are gaining mainstream political importance. Support for Obamacare, which disproportionately benefits lower-class Americans, has risen to all-time highs under the threat of repeal. As mentioned above, Republicans are now more sensitive to the opioid epidemic afflicting working-class communities. And the Democratic Party is paying particular attention to working-class voters, specifically in the form of a new labor-friendly party slogan: “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future.”

If that future is to be truly prosperous, however, it must provide more than just job opportunities — it must address drug use, too. It’ll be a welcome development for employees and employers alike.

“You hit that moment of silence, and they just put their head down,” says Bill Cruciger, co-owner of Roof Rite in Youngstown, Ohio, tells the Times of the moments in a job interview when he broaches the topic of a drug test with candidates. “We leave the door open and tell them they are eligible to come back once they’re clean. But we’ve yet to have anybody return.”