‘Tightrope’ argues for greater compassion and social responsibility

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn take an unsparing but empathetic look at the factors exerting a downward pull on working-class communities.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Knopf, 304 pp.

A quarter of the children that Nicholas Kristof rode the school bus with growing up in Yamhill, Oregon, in the 1960s and ’70s, are dead, their lives cut short by drug and alcohol addiction and suicide. These so-called deaths of despair are linked to the decline, for the last three years, in life expectancy in United States. 

In “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” Kristof and co-author Sheryl WuDunn examine the crisis in working-class America by traveling to stagnating communities across the country, but they return again and again to the heart-rending stories that have resulted from the collapse of the social fabric in Kristof’s beloved hometown.  

Kristof is a New York Times columnist, and WuDunn, with whom he has cowritten four previous books (the two shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for their reporting on China), is a former Times reporter. Between them, the married couple has four Ivy League degrees and a Rhodes Scholarship. In short, they’re the sort of “coastal elites” who are often accused of condescending to working-class people in our extremely polarized political climate. But Kristof’s roots run deep in Yamhill, a tightknit rural community whose economy was built on farming, logging, and manufacturing, and he and WuDunn write about its residents – many of whom are their friends – with affection and empathy.

The stories they tell are almost unbearably bleak. The Kristof family farm was half a mile from that of the Knapps, and the author rode the bus to school with the five Knapp children. The Knapp parents had both grown up poor in homes without plumbing or electricity, and the father was a violent alcoholic who died young of drug- and alcohol-related causes. Still, the Knapps had been able to buy their property in Oregon, and with the promise of a good education, it seemed that life would continue to improve for their children. Instead, four out of the five Knapp children are dead: one died of liver failure, one of hepatitis linked to drug use. One perished, immobilized by alcohol, in a house fire; another died after the methamphetamine he was cooking exploded. The lone survivor spent more than a decade in prison.  

Kristof and WuDunn explain these harrowing stories by describing the larger forces at work, with 1 in 7 Americans now living in poverty. They examine the effects, in Yamhill and elsewhere, of vanishing, decent blue-collar union jobs; the rise in drug abuse (which began, all too often, with an opioid prescription from a doctor); and, in large part because of the war on drugs, which they consider “perhaps the worst single policy mistake of the last half century,” the rise in mass incarceration. They also decry the “gratuitous cruelty” of recent American social policy and note that it wasn’t always this way. From the Homestead Acts to the GI Bill, the government was once in the business of creating opportunity (which, they acknowledge, was often available only to white people). Replacing punitive public policy with policy approaches that recognize a collective responsibility for our fellow citizens, they argue, will in the long run save billions of dollars and prevent untold suffering.

The authors are aware that some readers will have trouble mustering sympathy for some of the people they write about. They “look unsparingly at failures of personal responsibility,” but they also “examine equally rigorously the failures of government, of institutions, and of society.” They emphasize that children who grow up in dysfunctional homes have the deck stacked against them, through no fault of their own. One of the Knapp grandchildren, Amber, seemed to break the family cycle of downward mobility and early death, graduating from high school, marrying and having children, and working successfully in information technology. But she too became addicted, losing her marriage, her children, and her job and going in and out of prison. “When you’re raised in chaos and you’re around chaos a lot, your body adapts to the chaos,” she told the authors. “I was actually creating the chaos to feel normal.” Kristof and WuDunn, who argue that wise policy can intervene to improve these outcomes, mourn the wasted potential of smart and ambitious people like Amber. The authors speculate about what might have happened had she been born into a stable family or received well-timed interventions to set her on a more constructive path.

“This has been a wrenching book for us to write,” the authors confide at the outset. It is at times wrenching to read. But Kristof and WuDunn, in addition to peppering the narrative with heroic individuals around the country making a difference in their communities, offer a range of sensible policy suggestions: expanded early childhood education, increased vocational training, long-term intensive drug treatment programs, and experimental initiatives like universal high school graduation laws. In addition to looking back at all that's been lost, the authors – compassionate, solutions-oriented, and ultimately optimistic – offer a path forward.

Listen to Monitor Editor Mark Sappenfield's audio interview with Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. 

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