"Tightrope"

Starting in rural Yamhill, Oregon where Nicholas Kristof grew up on a sheep farm in the 1960s and 70s, “Tightrope” documents the startling devastation now experienced by the working poor in the United States. In this latest book, the authors seek to counteract the currently popular “cruel narrative that the working class struggle is about bad choices, laziness, and vices.” They challenge readers to reflect not only on “individual responsibility,” but on the “collective irresponsibility” of American society.

Life expectancy in the United States has decreased for three successive years, the first such decline in the century. In central Oregon, where the Kristof family still owns a farm, a quarter of Nicholas’ classmates have died early from addiction, suicide, accidents and treatable medical conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

Kristof tells some of their stories: a popular cheerleader who, finding herself homeless in middle age, freezes to death; a veteran still warring with addiction and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; and a mother who survives a murderous husband only to bury four of her five adult children. Photographs of some of Kristof’s homeless and deceased classmates add urgency to the authors’ plea that our country addresses the plight of its working class in a meaningful way.

Kristof and WuDunn further examine the reasons the United States lags far behind many less prosperous countries in allowing its citizens fair access to education, safety and health, and investigate why so many families find themselves worse off now than a generation ago. Moving beyond Yamhill, the authors broaden their case by sharing a series of stories of the working poor across the United States revealing the cruel structural and economic forces working against the “other America.”

They stress that these problems are no longer Republican or Democratic issues, but matters that threaten the future of the United States. There are biographical sketches of people of different races, ethnicities and regions, but they have in common the theme of being overwhelmed by economic adversity in an extremely wealthy country.

In addition to painting a realistic and grim picture, the book offers hope by presenting successful small programs such as Tulsa’s Women in Recovery Program that especially addresses addiction, and other initiatives like the Remote Area Medical group that offers free healthcare in Appalachia, or an effective afterschool program in Pine Bluff, Ark.

While the authors clearly state that individual charitable organizations cannot solve the nation’s systemic problems, they believe they can serve as model programs to be expanded nation-wide.

“Tightrope” contends that America’s actual “Exceptionalism” is its peoples’ lack of concern for one another and that only vigorous public policies will change this uncompassionate cultural norm. Kristof and WuDunn suggest priority issues to address the crisis: early childhood education, high school graduation, universal healthcare, access to contraceptives, housing, jobs, government issued saving bonds and monthly allowances for children. To those who complain the nation cannot afford all this, their reply is, “Everybody knows about the cost of food stamps for the poor, but few people are aware that the median taxpayer is also subsidizing the corporate executive whose elegant French dinner is tax-deductible.”

“Tightrope” is personal and well researched, a book that will linger with the reader for a long time. The narrative feels especially authentic since Kristof is able to give vivid intimate reports on living people because he still farms the land from a distance, making cider and growing cherries on the farm.

Kristof and WuDunn, the first husband and wife to share a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, have co-authored four previous books.