Pulitzer Prize winning journalists and Scarsdale residents Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn recently came out with their latest book, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, which navigates the trials and tribulations facing poor, working class Americans.
Tightrope, released in January, chronicles stories of job loss, drug and alcohol dependency, sexual and physical abuse, teen pregnancy, lack of healthcare, and lack of education mainly through the lives of Yamhill, Oregon residents, most of whom grew up with Kristof. After returning to Yamhill for yearly visits, Kristof and WuDunn acknowledged there was a humanitarian crisis unfolding right in America’s heartland.
As America’s cities and surrounding suburbs continue to prosper, there are still many Americans left behind to suffer in poverty; left to walk a tightrope that yields no safety net. In reality, Americans are not always much better off than some of the world’s poorest countries.
“You can predict with scary accuracy the outcome of a baby born in certain zip codes,” says WuDunn. “I mean that’s scary… right now, in certain counties in the U.S., babies born in those counties have a lower life expectancy than babies born in Cambodia or Bangladesh.”
Furthermore, Kristof and WuDunn argue the government has failed its citizens due to lack of policy regarding topics such as early childhood education, job training, and addiction treatment. The authors admit that personal responsibility is important, but collective social responsibility is even more essential. When some Americans fall off the tightrope, it hurts the entire country.
While many of Kristof’s childhood friends grew up in homes believing in upward economic and social mobility, that belief has not transpired into reality.
“I think there were a couple of wrong turns. I think the loss of good jobs really hurt and I think that likewise, a failure to invest in education and human capital really hurt,” offers Kristof. “When people self-medicated because they couldn’t get better jobs, we decided we’re going to build prisons instead of building treatment centers. It became pretty clear pretty quickly that this was not reducing the drug epidemic and that it was enormously expensive while ripping apart families and undermining the children of those in prison.”
Besides heart wrenching stories, Tightrope is also full of staggering statistics. Only one in ten Americans struggling with dependency receives treatment, even though investing in treatment early on pays for itself twelve times over.
Kristof and WuDunn also shine light on the fact that every 15 minutes a baby is born addicted to opioids, while more people are dying every two weeks from drugs, alcohol, and suicide than throughout the eighteen years of the Afghan War.
“People around the world are flocking to the United States. They want to come to the U.S. because there still is the magic of the American Dream,” says WuDunn. “But, the people here who are struggling, for them there is no more American Dream; it’s broken.”
Tightrope is a plea for change. The book clarifies that philanthropy and charity work will not cut it. Kristof and WuDunn urge policymakers to create more systemic and sustainable programs to combat things like addiction and the loss of good wage, blue collar jobs, while investing in free early childhood education.
“It is a social great depression,” notes Kristof. America cannot afford to waste its most important resource: its people.