Tightrope, by married, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, is one of a number of recent books spotlighting the hopelessness and dysfunction that have decimated working-class America. In the 1970s, when Kristof was growing up in Yamhill, Oregon, working-class parents with good-paying union jobs had better lives than their parents did; everyone anticipated their children, with more education, would do better still. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. And, as the authors argue, this squandered potential hurts not just individuals who find themselves on a downward trajectory; it hurts the country as a whole.
Kristof and WuDunn document this reversal of fortune with extensive data, tracking declining median wages, life expectancy, educational achievement, and more. Citing the Social Progress Index, they point out that the United States now “rank[s] number 32 in internet access, number 39 in access to clean drinking water, number 50 in personal safety and number 61 in high-school enrollment…. Overall, the Social Progress Index ranks the United States number 25 in well-being of citizens, behind all the other members of the G7 as well as significantly poorer countries like Portugal and Slovenia” (13-14).
Kristof and WuDunn approach this topic not just through statistics, though. They humanize the crisis by sharing stories of friends and neighbors Kristof grew up with in Yamhill, Oregon, many of whose lives unraveled due to poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, incarceration, and despair. Here’s one stark metric they use to illustrate the extent of the problem: “About one-fourth of the kids who rode with Nick on the [school] bus are dead from drugs, suicide, alcohol, obesity, reckless accidents and other pathologies” (8).
Because Kristof grew up with many of his subjects and has had a lifelong relationship with them, he sees and portrays them as individuals possessing strengths and weaknesses. He acknowledges the bad choices they’ve made, but he’s also aware of their talents, their untapped potential, and the points at which their families, their schools, and punitive social policies let them down. Based on this insight, Kristoff and WuDunn contend that to address this crisis, we need to “transcend the customary narrative that focuses only on ‘personal responsibility’ and on glib talk about lifting oneself up by the bootstraps” (19). Additionally, we need to consider seriously what our collective responsibility is and should be.
Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl WuDunn. Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.