Reaching for hope: An interview with Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Husband-wife duo Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have won Pulitzer Prizes for their international work, from their coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China to Mr. Kristof’s reporting on the Darfur genocide in Sudan. South African archbishop Desmond Tutu has even called Mr. Kristof an “honorary African” for his work alleviating suffering on the continent. But their new book, “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” presented a new challenge for the couple: reporting on a humanitarian crisis in their own backyard.
“One of the challenges in writing ‘Tightrope’ was that we were a little bit afraid that readers would be so focused on the mistakes that some of the people had made that they wouldn’t see through to the fundamental humanity of these people,” Mr. Kristof says in a studio interview at the Monitor. The book begins in Mr. Kristof’s beloved hometown, Yamhill, Oregon, as it chronicles the wave of drugs, crime, poverty, and hopelessness sweeping across the town. It’s a downward spiral seen in much of rural America, even as the United States boasts an overall growing economy.
Why We Wrote This
The Monitor is always looking for people working at the intersection of compassion and solutions. That’s why editor Mark Sappenfield talked to the writers of “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.”
Ms. WuDunn shares in the interview that the reason for the book is not just to highlight all that is wrong with a country in crisis, but to examine possible solutions. And many of the solutions involve investing in the nation’s human capital. “If we don’t raise strong Americans, how can we have a strong America?” she says.
Read the Monitor’s review of “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.”
Note: This recorded interview was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. You can find the audio player above. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story below.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: The reason we chose the title “Tightrope,” it goes to your issue that there are absolutely people who managed to cross the tightrope, and bravo to them. But if you’re on the tightrope, then maybe you’ll make it across, but one stumble and that’s it. There’s no safety net.
MARK SAPPENFIELD: Hello, I’m Mark Sappenfield editor of The Christian Science Monitor, and today I have the great pleasure of inviting authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn into our studio to talk about their new book, “Tightrope.” They’ve both reported for The New York Times in conflict zones around the world and were even the first husband-wife pair to win a Pulitzer for their work. More recently, they’ve coauthored a book that explores issues closer to home. It’s titled “Tightrope,” and the book shares the stories of people struggling with joblessness and the loss of hope around the United States. But it focuses particularly on the small town of Yamhill, Oregon, where Nicholas grew up. He’s lost many friends and neighbors in Yamhill to early deaths from addiction, illness and other so-called diseases of despair. But Nicholas and Sheryl also uncovered something else: stories of resurgence and recovery that offer credible hope that there are solutions for a nation in crisis. And we’ll talk about some of those stories today.
So, Nicholas, you’ve reported around the world in conflict zones and developing countries. What was it like reporting in your own backyard?
KRISTOF: This was a lot more difficult because we’d spent a lot of time in, say, refugee camps, interviewing people. And then you have a certain emotional armor when you hear terrible stories. But in this case, we were going back to ... And essentially what happened was we were covering humanitarian crises abroad and then we’d go back periodically to my beloved hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, where my mom is still on the family farm. And we saw this humanitarian crisis unfolding there. And initially, we didn’t really know how to process that. And then gradually we saw that this was just a microcosm of a national problem. And, you know, Mark, it is so much harder to talk to kids you’ve grown up with, who you competed with on the high school track, you passed notes to in class, you had crushes on and talk to them about drug abuse, homelessness, an attempted suicide, and the struggles with their children. You know, it was also tough because we cared deeply how they will perceive it. And also, I love Yamhill and I don’t want people just to think of it as this place where everybody’s cooking meth and falling apart. It’s much, much more than that. And yet we think that America is not adequately focusing on how much suffering there is out there. And we thought that this would be one way of telling that story and highlighting the problems out there.
SAPPENFIELD: Sheryl, one thing that is so apparent in the book is that we are really invited to take a journey with Nicholas because we’re going back to a place that you loved so much, where you grew up, where you have friends. But, you know, it’s very hard to read the book and not feel like you’ve gone on a journey too. Talk a little bit about the journey that you went on through this book and how it changed, and how you dealt with these things.
SHERYL WUDUNN: Well, of course, I’ve been going back to Yamhill for decades now. And, you know, after, even before we got married, I’d already gone to the farm and started going to Yamhill and every year we’ve gone back there, so, and we’ve lived there as well. So I have come to know a lot of Nick’s friends and we would see them all the time, and also know the people who worked on the farm, some of whom we actually portray in the book. So this one family, the Knapp family is particularly a striking family. This is one where Farlan, the oldest, is the one who was on the bus with Nick. And he and his four siblings would, you know, tumble into the bus, No. 6 school bus. And, you know, they would be rambunctious and happy and very funny. And they were, you know, just happy kids on the bus with the futures ahead of them. Their father was a union pipe layer. And the mom worked on a tractor with the little one Keylin in tow because she didn’t have any child care. And so their futures were ahead of them. And then over the years, what happened was that since the mother and the father hadn’t really had much of an education, like not even elementary school. Well, you know, why should the kids? They don’t need schooling. You get a good job, right? So they dropped out of high school, all of them. And the result is Farlan died from liver disease related to overuse of drugs. The sister, Rogina, died from hepatitis linked to needle use. Zealan died, passed out drunk in a house fire, and Nathan blew himself up making meth. Keylin, the one who is alive, who I was able to meet again in Oklahoma where they’ve moved, he basically stayed alive because spent 13 years in the state penitentiary in Oregon. And so these stories of these people are just so moving. And Dee Knapp, the mother, is still alive at 80 and her mom died more recently at 97 years old. So you can see how the next generation has tumbled downward instead of spiraled up, which is what the futures of many Americans now are. Fifty percent of Americans now, even higher a percentage in some surveys, say that they don’t think that their next generation, their kids, are going to do as well as they are going to do. And so we have these horrible statistics that portend a dim future for the next generation. And basically, if we don’t raise strong Americans, how can we have a strong America?
SAPPENFIELD: And that’s a great segue into just talking about some of the broader themes in the book a little bit more specifically is that you raise at one point in the book, you raise the book from several decades ago, “The Other America” and the importance that had in kind of changing minds and opening thought about poverty. And you kind of say, we hope that our book can have a similar effect in opening up this world that Sheryl, you were just talking about, to people understanding how are actually people living in these circumstances and what do we need to know to change those outcomes?
KRISTOF: Yeah, there’s this fundamental disconnect because, look, the American economy now in some ways is doing great, and the stock market has been doing fantastically. And so I think people can be a little puzzled at, how can you write about so many people who are struggling at a time when unemployment is so low? And yet both are true. The overall pie has done extraordinarily well. And yet there are a lot of Americans out there with such tiny slivers that they then self-medicate ... Even during the Great Depression, life expectancy was actually increasing. Now, even though the pie is growing, life expectancy has been falling for three years in a row. And so young people in America actually approve of socialism more than of capitalism. And yet to us, the problem isn’t capitalism. It’s the way we’ve tweaked capitalism more recently. And from 1945 through the 1970s, we had a capitalist system that worked incredibly well, both to grow the pie and to slice it very equitably.
SAPPENFIELD: You’re touching on there’s a ... Chapter 5 is called “How America Went Astray.” That’s really one of the most powerful chapters I’ve read about trying to understand how we got to where we are because it’s like what is America’s greatness founded on and how can we continue that? And what would I took from that so much was this different sense of how we look at, kind of what you said, investing in human capital. From the eighteen fifties to the 1970s, America was a global leader in investing in its people. And you mentioned from the Homestead Act all the way up to really powerful examples, the GI Bill. I mean, what an investment in America’s future that was. And it was an investment in the people saying we have faith in our people to be great and we’re going to help them along the way. And I suppose in that chapter, you paint this really graphic picture and, in a good way, in a sense of really explaining why that happened. Of how we went from that vision to a different vision and how there’s a need to kind of get back to that sense of investing in our people. I grew up in the 1980s. So I’m a child of the Ronald Reagan era. And so I grew up kind of in that era where, you know, he was saying small, you know, small government. And then when Bill Clinton said, you know, the era of big government is dead. That’s the mental framework. You’re really pushing for a complete change in mental framework. Talk a little bit about that.
WUDUNN: Well, one of the biggest problems that really arose and exploded during that era, in the 1980s was this narrative of personal responsibility that sort of came along with Ronald Reagan's we don’t like the welfare queens. And so what it basically means is that you should pull yourself up by the bootstraps. And that is a saying that if you’ve ever tried to do that, I don’t think you will succeed, because, in fact, it’s impossible. In the 18th century when they used that expression in the very beginning, when they started using it, it meant to do something impossible, like you’re doing something impossible. And then over the years, somehow it’s come to mean something everybody can do. And that the idea that you should be personally responsible for everything that has to do with you, that also means that you, if you make bad decisions, it’s your fault too. Blame the victim, as though there is nothing in the environment that has anything to do with your upbringing. That is a problem. It’s true that Farlan and other people made bad decisions. They shouldn’t have dropped out of high school. They shouldn’t have started using drugs. But on the other hand, how can, in today’s day, we can predict by using the zip code a baby was born in, what the outcome of their life is most likely to be like. And so are you going to blame that infant for making bad decisions? Clearly, socioeconomic and the environmental factors play a huge role. And when a baby is born every 15 minutes exposed to opioids, drugs in their system, you can’t fault that baby. And so we really have to take a hard look at this narrative of personal responsibility and also reconsider, go back to our roots of the social contract and say, wait a second, what about, you know, collective social responsibility? We need to build our society, rebuild our society, the one that we want to live in and in a nation that is, you know, has so much injustice that’s founded on the principle of justice. We need to really get back to our roots.
KRISTOF: You mentioned some of these grand social programs like the Homestead Act. You know, as an Oregon kid growing up, we were all nurtured on the legend of our pioneer ancestors and how they crossed the country and showed this incredible courage and rugged individualism. And, you know, they would never have tried to grab for some government benefit program. And yet, you know, of course, looking back, why did the pioneers cross the country? Because of a government benefit plan. Because they knew once they got to the Willamette Valley they’d get 640 acres, and something like a quarter of white families in America owe part of their family wealth to the Homestead Acts originally. Yamhill was transformed by homesteads, later by rural electrification, and later by the GI Bill of Rights, which gave people both education and a chance to help buy their own homes. And those programs strike me as quite brilliant in that they encouraged people to take steps that would lift themselves. They were investments in the future rather than just handouts. And that made them both great investments, but also politically sustainable. And I think that we’ve lost that ethos and we’ve been too focused on pointing fingers of blame and not enough on offering helping hands.
SAPPENFIELD: One thing that I really appreciate about your book is that solutions can be a both/and thing, as opposed to an either/or. And you take pains throughout the book, appropriately to say, we’re not absolving personal responsibility here. It’s not like we’re saying that we should just absolve everyone of personal responsibility and the government should step in and make sure that all their outcomes are great no matter what they do. But again, one of those keywords that I feel from your book is balance. Is that that balance has shifted from how it was in the past when frankly, when we’re talking about when America was, you know, seemed stronger and all these things, the era that we’re talking about is when that balance was more present. And I just appreciate how in doing this you clearly are suggesting solutions and saying that balances out and we need to think more collectively about these things. But it’s also a nuanced conversation. And if we just get stuck into saying, oh, we need to expand government or we need personal responsibility, we miss that path where we can find the both/and there.
KRISTOF: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. You know, one of the kind of remarkable statistics we came across is that for Americans who do three things, who graduate from high school, who get a full time job, and who marry before having children, only 2% live in poverty. For people who do none of those three things, it’s about 75%. And so clearly there are behaviors that matter that we should encourage. So, you know, by all means, encourage young people to graduate from high school to take the first one. But it also turns out that it’s not just a question of haranguing people, but high schools can also do more about not kicking out troublemakers, which they historically did.
SAPPENFIELD: And you had so many people in your story where that is exactly what happened to them.
KRISTOF: Exactly. And the school got rid of a problem kid, but then society inherited somebody who would never be able to succeed on the job market. And it turns out that when states require kids to stay in school till age 18 or when they condition getting a driver’s license on being in school, that that dramatically raises high school graduation rates. And so clearly there are you know, we have to pay attention to personal responsibility. But if we’re having that conversation, we also have to have a conversation about our collective social responsibility.
SAPPENFIELD: Right. I mean, the sense that you get is that, this is a harsh truth, but that that’s OK. We’re comfortable with those. Is that really if you want to look at the actions and the priorities that we have set as a country, the real social safety net that we have invested in is prisons.
WUDUNN: I mean, I think that’s what we see, one of the most costly and biggest failures is the mass incarceration that really started with the war on drugs in the 1980s with the two acts, you know, the drug act. It was just not only a loss for the country, but also a huge injustice. I mean, we talk about, you know, this woman, Geneva Cooley, who she was addicted to drugs and she actually became a drug mule. She actually transported some drugs to Alabama, a small portion. And she was arrested. She was put in jail for 999 years without parole. I mean, this poor woman and she had been there, when I, by the time I saw her, she had already been there for like 20 years. At the same time, you have these pharmaceutical executives who were selling opioids, which got far more people addicted to drugs. And then you had the Sackler family behind one of the most prominent of these drug companies, Purdue Pharma. And none of them have been prosecuted. None of them have gone to jail. And, in fact, they have $13 billion in their war chest. And so I think that, the discrepancy is remarkable. And the prisons, yes, they’re very costly. But there are a lot of solutions coming on the front, which is very interesting. There are drug rehabilitation centers that are trying to have people diverted from prison, if they are obviously addicted to drugs, and actually diverted into treatment programs. So we visited a place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and it’s a real role model for how it should be done. You know, drug rehabilitation takes a long time and they do have lots of rehab centers all over. Maybe you stay there for three months. You can’t cure someone in three months. This program takes 18 months to basically two years. They go through intense drug therapy, psychotherapy, they get medical treatment, and they do all sorts of things. And the recidivism rate is basically 4% after three years. I mean, they’re very successful. And it’s programs like these that other countries, peer countries, you know, in the developed world and in Western Europe and in Canada that have been used for a while. And, you know, Portugal, for instance, is a perfect example of what we in the U.S. could have done. They about the same time that we were starting, launching our war on drugs, they basically said, no, let’s actually try the public health tool kit. And so they said instead of sending these people to jail, let’s send them to drug rehab. And so now, years later, their experiment worked, ours failed. So they have dropped their overdose rate by two-thirds and they’re basically the lowest overdose rate in all of Western Europe. Whereas we, we have kept our same policies for all these years. Why aren’t we tweaking them when we see something isn’t working, and when we see over in Western Europe, a program that does a policy that does work, why can’t we be flexible enough to change? America has been known for its flexible capitalist model, but in some areas we are so rigid.
SAPPENFIELD: The book is hard reading at times, but yet the subtitle is “Americans Reaching for Hope.” And this is just another point where I probably will pause as the Monitor editor and say thank you for that, because I think certainly the Monitor would say that that’s a really important ingredient to bring to it. I was reading recently and I think this is an annual thing that you do, that you wrote a column recently in The New York Times that said this has been the best year ever. And that is an interesting, to get back to that word balance again, that I think the Monitor in particular wrestles with a lot. And I think that the careers that you have had really are exemplary. And I’d be interested for you to share how you think about that balance, in the sense that there is so much that we need to, like this book, that we need to bring to attention to be corrected, that we need to bring it and have a good conversation, informed conversation, compassionate conversation, and decide how would we as a nation, as a community, as a society, what are the values we’re going to bring to this? That we think are important to us? If you just focus on those things that are broken, you can get a really warped sense of where the world is right now. And that column was fundamentally about that, is that if you just focus on these things, you miss that we’re actually amazing problem solvers. If we actually give consent to say we can fix this, we do amazing things. Just tell me about how you’ve wrestled with that personally and professionally in terms of wanting to make sure that in Darfur or Tiananmen that you’re bringing attention, these things, but also wanting to say, folks, we can do these things.
WUDUNN: So in the book “Tightrope,” we have a chapter called “Escape Artists.”
WUDUNN: Because we want to show that some of these people who came from exactly the same terrible place actually can escape. And, you know, for whatever reason, I mean, they did get nudges. They got help. In one case, one actually good friend of ours was an alcoholic. And, you know, finally he was put in jail for his umpteenth, driving under the influence. And in the end, he needed rehab, but he couldn’t pay for it. So his girlfriend married him and she had health care. And so he used her health care to get better and he did get better. He has taken that, you know, to the stars. And that’s the kind of escape artist that we see. There are many people like that. And with just other nudges as we talked about, we really can help society. We know that hope is really important. There’s been a lot of research. Right now in fact, this is one of the best times to solve problems because there are so many researchers that are creating evidence-based strategies that allow us to draw upon them and just take them to scale. But the research on hope by, you know, a Nobel laureate, Esther Duflo, she basically was doing some research in India in the developing world, and was discovering that, you know, when they gave a family a cow or an animal, not only did they make money from that particular animal, but somehow they seem to have done far better than just what you would normally get from the income stream from an animal. And it turns out what happens was that these people saw that, wow, there’s a way out. If we have this cow, we actually can, you know, sell the milk. Well, let’s try a vegetable garden and let’s sell the vegetables or let’s grow an apple tree and sell the apples. It gave them hope. And that’s what we think is the key to this. I mean, there are, so many people in the developing world who are desperately seeking to come to America because they believe in the American dream. But we see people, Americans who are floundering like the ones that we write about because they don’t have hope. And for them, the American dream is broken.
KRISTOF: One of the challenges in writing “Tightrope” was that we were a little bit afraid that readers would be so focused on the mistakes that some of the people had made that they wouldn’t see through to the fundamental humanity of these people. And we wanted to pull no punches and yet also make very clear that these are complicated people who had enormous potential, enormous skills were, you know, some of these people were deeply loyal to us and they trusted us with telling us about their lives and about their mistakes that they had made. And one of them in particular, Clayton Green, he debated whether to let us write that he had cooked meth and in the end, he did, because that was part of who he was. But the reason he did that was because he didn’t have other avenues in the job market the way his dad had as a, his dad was a cement finisher who helped build the Fremont Bridge in Portland. Took great pride in that. If there had been better job opportunities for Clayton, and if Clayton had not been kicked out of school in the ninth grade for fighting, then Clayton would not have made that bad choice. And I hope that we as a country can see that there are ways to support people so that they will be in a position to make better choices.
SAPPENFIELD: Thanks for listening. Again, this was Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, who authored the book “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.” To find a review of the book you can visit csmonitor.com/books. And if you like what you heard, you can help us create more content like this by subscribing to The Christian Science Monitor. You can do that at csmonitor.com/subscribe. The story was produced and edited by Samantha Laine Perfas, engineered by Tim Malone, with sound design by Noel Flatt. Copyright The Christian Science Monitor, 2020.