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Kristof and WuDunn’s “Tightrope”: an Essential Book

(Games for Change/Creative Commons)

Whether one agrees with none, some, or all of their policy prescriptions, Tightrope approaches the status of a must-read.

The connection between American politics and reality has been fraying for some time. Sizable segments of both the Right and the Left have been openly flirting with unreality more and more. In the wake of George Floyd’s death this past summer, some on the Left advocated the patently absurd policy of police abolition. This fall, much of the Right has descended into laughable (albeit dangerous) conspiracy theorizing regarding the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Time will tell whether our cross-ideological foray into unreal politics will continue to proliferate and usher in real-world, truly destructive consequences. As Ross Douthat recently wrote at The New York Times: “…it’s reasonable to wonder how long this can go on—whether dreampolitik and realpolitik can continue permanently on separate tracks, brushing up against each other from time to time without a serious collision, or whether eventually the dreamworld narratives will force a crisis in the real one.”

Whatever the ultimate consequences may be, the blame for American politics and reality’s descent into breakup territory does not reside solely with left-wing activists or the Republican Party. Many of the key institutions that inform and shape the terms of our political debate—like newspapers, television media, and academia—have also played a most unhelpful role. By bending to certain capital-N Narratives—like woke orthodoxies on the Left and “Trump can do no wrong” knee-jerk thinking on the Right—these institutions have also weakened their grip on truth and reality and have helped push citizens and politicians to do the same. 

To regain trust in one another and our political system, Americans of all partisan and ideological persuasions must wean themselves off the dopamine rushes that they derive from social distancing themselves from reality—from simplistic policy thinking and demonizing the other side without reckoning with the potential merits of their values and principled policy stances. The only way to begin ridding ourselves of binary thinking and “simplism” is by elevating examples of those who are already doing so. To once more reckon with our political and socioeconomic realities as they are and not as we wish them to be, we must turn to those who are expending the time and effort to do precisely that—who are engaging with the real world.

It is important, then, that we celebrate and pay close attention to pieces of social, economic, cultural, and political analysis and commentary that aim to flesh out on-the-ground realities in vivid detail. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s recent book, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, is one such work. Kristof and WuDunn, a husband-wife reporting team, leverage the power of human narrative to lay out the reality of poverty, addiction, and downward mobility that permeates too much of America—from white ghettos to black and brown ones.

Kristof and WuDunn set out to answer why this has happened—why so many folks in places like Yamhill have failed to climb the ladder of upward mobility and have instead slid into early “deaths of despair.”

Whether one agrees with none, some, or all of their policy prescriptions, Tightrope approaches the status of a must-read. When it comes to poverty, it is high time that we look past the simplistic, competing liberal-conservative frameworks for understanding these entrenched pathologies—frameworks that traffic heavily in monocausal explanations like socioeconomic structures, personal responsibility, job loss, or family instability. By telling real individuals’ stories, by walking with them step-by-step towards their descent into hopelessness or their escape from poverty, Kristof and WuDunn remind readers of the richness and complexity of human beings, as well as the need for approaching this issue with humility and a deep appreciation for nuance. 

Tightrope opens in a jarring manner. Setting the scene in rural Yamhill, Oregon, where Kristof himself grew up, the authors relate that “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.” Kristof and WuDunn set out to answer why this has happened—why so many folks in places like Yamhill have failed to climb the ladder of upward mobility and have instead slid into earlydeaths of despair.”  

This is yet another book about the social and economic decline of the white working class over the course of the past half century. While riddled with findings from think tank white papers and academic studies, Kristof and WuDunn’s approach is adamantly not sterilized with statistics. It is raw with all too human pain, suffering, complexity, desperation, and hope. And it implores readers to reckon with the pain, hope, and messiness to which all of the folks who populate the pages of Tightrope are home. For example, it tells the stories of Kristof’s neighbors like the Green and the Knapp families. In the 1970s, these were families that struggled with alcohol addiction yet held down steady and well-paying blue-collar union jobs. The future looked relatively bright for their children. But the future did not play out that way. Joblessness and middle-aged drug overdose deaths, rather than good trade jobs and college degrees and flourishing home lives, have come to define these families’ lives. Why? 

Tightrope’s chapters run through numerous societal woes and deficiencies that have laid the groundwork for Yamhill’s descent from the American Dream into an American Nightmare: the disappearance of many union jobs, the spread of heroin and meth, the dawn of the opioid crisis, the weakening of the two-parent family structure, the declining quality of public schooling, the criminalization of poverty, and the lack of quality, affordable health care. The thrust of many Yamhill residents’ stories was straightforward enough: They were the products of fairly dysfunctional home lives. This, coupled with an inadequate and often incomplete education, left them woefully underprepared to make it in the new, knowledge-driven economy, when the blue-collar union jobs that had previously sustained their families began disappearing. There was an inadequate social safety net—or rather, trampoline—to equip them with the skills they needed to adapt and succeed. Extra-legal means of making money, like drug dealing, grew more attractive and prevalent. So too did addiction, the breakdown of the institution of marriage, and the number of children born out of wedlock. Soon enough, many Yamhill families were positioned to repeat the cycle once more. 

The human costs of this downward trajectory cannot be underestimated. Kristof and WuDunn tell the story of Kristof’s neighbor, Dee Knapp. The book begins with Dee huddled in a darkened field as her alcoholic and abusive husband, Gary, comes home and drunkenly, sporadically shoots bullets towards her in the field. Gary’s abusiveness aside, the Knapps were upwardly mobile. The future was looking challenging yet bright for the five Knapp kids. Gary was an abusive but functional, bills-paying alcoholic. Yet Tightrope closes with Dee burying her fifth and final child, Keylan. Five children. Dead. It is heart-wrenching. 

The specific policy upshot of that pain and suffering is a bit unclear. Kristof and WuDunn lay out a number of policy proposals geared towards reversing the downfall of places like Kristof’s hometown and the families like the Knapps that populate them: more resources directed towards early childhood, vocational, and higher education, more focus on drug treatment and less on drug criminalization, expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), universal health insurance (not necessarily a single-payer system but perhaps a multi-payer model akin to Germany’s), less restrictive zoning policies to increase the stock of affordable housing and decrease class-based residential segregation, and more wealth-generating policies such as Cory Booker-stylebaby bonds.” 

That said, the major difference between them and more well-off Americans—like myself and perhaps you—is not that poor decisions were made, but what the consequences of those decisions are.

There are many legitimate, principled disagreements to be had about these and other policy recommendations. However, the general argument of Tightrope is quite convincing: American social policy must be less geared towards punishment and more hyper-focused on empowerment and, if need be, rehabilitation. The residents of Yamhill are not blameless. Many of them made destructive life choices. That said, the major difference between them and more well-off Americans—like myself and perhaps you—is not that poor decisions were made, but what the consequences of those decisions are. As Kristof and WuDunn write: 

“[W]e came to see that life’s journey for affluent, well-educated American families is like a stroll along a wide, smooth path, forgiving of missteps. But increasingly, for those from lower on the socioeconomic spectrum, life resembles a tightrope walk. Some make it across, but for so many, one stumble and that’s it. What’s more, a tumble from the tightrope frequently destroys not only that individual but the entire family, including children and, through them, grandchildren. The casualties are everywhere in America, if we only care to notice.”

A civilized society must prize human agency and individual responsibility, without a doubt. But Kristof and WuDunn are quite right to note that our healthy focus on the importance of individual decisions has devolved into a “distorted obsession with personal responsibility”—an obsession that downplays the social, collective responsibility to which a healthy society ought to be home. 

A key first step in shouldering the burden of our collective responsibility towards one another—and to struggling Americans like those of Yamhill in particular—would be to have more discussions about how we can effectively empower and equip those currently on the tightrope instead of punishing them. Such discussions must be open, facts-based, and rigorous but should also keep real people like Dee Knapp and the tragedies they have suffered at top of mind. The story that Kristof and WuDunn tell is a failure of human development—a failure that mirrors, in many respects, the failure in human development that plagues urban communities of color, to which intellectuals like the Brown University economist Glenn Loury  have called attention

These are policy and cultural failures that must be rigorously analyzed and rectified. At the least, we can begin by shifting our collective focus away from punishment and towards empowerment and rehabilitation. This does not mean that individual agency and the importance of institutions like the family must be discounted. Not at all. But it does mean that we must ask ourselves whether all mistakes should be met with punishments—like involvement in a criminal justice system that unfortunately lays the groundwork for future, more severe mess ups—or interventions that aim to equip the individual with the tools, supports, and life lessons which he or she is lacking. 

Much of our discussion about poverty in America has turned in a most unhelpful direction: It has grown hyper-focused on race, especially in the wake of President Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 electoral victory. Impoverished white communities are held up as backwards bastions of racism and impoverished black communities as sites of centuries-long oppression. There is truth to both of these narratives, but too much focus on the race question elides the real common denominator here. Both communities are home to social dysfunction and the decay of economic opportunity, familial stability, and overall human development. Racism—the legacy thereof in particular—is a part of the story, but the story itself is one in which individual Americans, human beings, are failing themselves and being failed by the wider society.

The economic and social decay that grips too much of America is a complex reality rife with complex problems. Monocausal explanations will not do. Deeply reported human stories will, which is why Tightrope is a valuable contribution to our public discourse.

Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. He can be found on Twitter @TomsTakes98

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