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Nicholas Kristof Discusses “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope”

“One of the reasons our anti-poverty efforts in America don’t do better is we start too late. We need to help kids early on.”

On February 27th, Thomas Koenig was joined by Nicholas Kristof for a conversation about Mr. Kristof’s book Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, which was released in January of 2020. Mr. Kristof, who is a columnist at The New York Times, co-wrote Tightrope with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, a businesswoman and author. In their book, Mr. Kristof and Ms. WuDunn seek to understand various social pathologies that have become increasingly prevalent in the United States, particularly among the working class. Mr. Kristof’s hometown of Yamhill, Oregon features prominently in both his book and in this conversation. In his discussion with Mr. Koenig, Mr. Kristof describes how a decline in available jobs impacted towns such as Yamhill, the role of family and community in providing stability to people’s lives, and what policy measures might work best to stem the tide of addiction, premature death, and child poverty affecting many parts of the country.

A video of the conversation is available on YouTube.

Hi, I’m Tom Koenig, and I’m joined today by the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof. Nicholas, thanks so much for joining me.

Delighted to be with you.

We’re here today to discuss your book, which you co-wrote with your wife Sheryl WuDunn, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope. So I want to start with a very important, straightforward question. What’s your book about?

It’s about the disintegration of the working class in the United States over the last 50 years, and it’s told partly through the story of the kids who were on my old school bus, here in Yamhill, Oregon. I’m talking to you from Yamhill right now. It’s a farm town that had done very well for about a hundred years, and then jobs went away; people self-medicated with meth and alcohol. At this point, more than a third of the kids on my old school bus are gone from deaths of despair: drugs, alcohol, and suicide. So, we tell that story; we show how that is reflected in communities across the country and the degree to which I think working class Americans were abandoned by both parties, and what we can do to solve these problems.

So you’re bringing a real personal perspective to this; you’re embedded in that community; you’re there right now; you grew up there. And I was struck throughout the book how you’re kind of trying, I feel, to change the way your readers think about the issue of poverty and social deprivation alienation, about these left behind communities that we often have been hearing about in recent years. And one of the ways you do that is through this analogy of the tightrope. So I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that analogy and also how it sort of strays from both liberal and conservative orthodoxies, when it comes to conceptualizing and discussing poverty in America?

You’re right about us trying to change the narrative. I think that we have the tools to do a much better job to address poverty in America. We have the resources; what we’ve lacked is the political will. And I think that’s partly because we have this narrative that is an obstacle, and I think that’s both on the Right and the Left. The Right says, “Lift yourselves up by the bootstraps,” and it’s all about bad choices and personal responsibility—this kind of thing. I’m afraid that on the Left, increasingly vis-à-vis the white working class, there are an awful lot of people who say you guys voted for Trump; I know you guys have voted for Republicans. You’ve done this to yourselves; you’re all bigots; you’re all racists. And I think it’s an awful lot more complicated than that at both ends.

Do people make bad choices? Absolutely. They’re often on a trajectory to making those bad choices from the time they were very young. So we cite that example that you used, that metaphor of the tightrope. For most Americans in a good middle class context, they’re not so likely to trip and stumble. And, if they do, then they’re on this nice wide path, and, if they fall then, they can pick themselves right up. Meanwhile, there are an awful lot of Americans who are in low income homes and chaotic homes and very difficult family contexts. For them, it’s not this nice wide green path. They’re way up there on a tightrope, and they’re more likely to fall. And if they do fall, it’s much harder to recover.

When you were talking about the analogy there, you talked about the wide path with all of these different supports. And I think one of the interesting parts of the book is that you’re focused, of course, on policy. You talk about different policies; you’re focused on the bread and butter issues—these aspects, like the economic aspects—but also the social capital aspects.

Theoretically, if I have a real screw up, I’m blessed to have a strong family structure and supports and friends and colleagues, all of these different things. Part of the story that I feel like you’re telling is: Yes, this economic deprivation but, also—and perhaps downstream of that—is that social alienation and the lack of the strong ties that often are what get us through our most difficult periods in life, public policy aside.

Yeah, it’s interesting. In Yamhill—and I think in a lot of white communities around the country—back in the 1990s or so, there was a lot of harsh rhetoric about the struggles in black communities. And the tendency was to say it’s all about deadbeat dads; it’s all about bad choices. These folks will just buckle up, and we don’t hand them welfare, then they’ll be fine. Meanwhile, the great Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson said, “No, it’s about lost jobs.” And he was exactly right because when those jobs left Yamhill and when they left West Virginia and when they left logging communities in Maine, the same kinds of problems unfolded. So I do think that a lot of it was about lost jobs, but I also wondered why it is that in the Great Depression, when jobs were lost, you didn’t have the same pathologies in Yamhill or other places.

I think it was because of the point you make about social capital. At that point, people were embedded in organizations, churches, community organizations, extended families who looked out for each other and supported each other, and that created a buffer from hardship. Those community institutions disintegrated over the years. And, when drugs came along, they further dissolved those kinds of ties. So the kids on my old school bus—they weren’t really part of networks who could support them. Really, the exception to that, as I look through my community, was the Mormon church. The one institution in Yamhill, Oregon that really was able to buffer people successfully and provide basically 100% immunity from these kinds of problems was the Mormon church. And that’s because it still was this really, really tight network in a way that other institutions were unable to provide.

So when we’re talking about institutional decline and this withering away, it’s so interesting when I hear you saying these points. You’re towards the left side of the political spectrum, and I hear you echoing points made by people like Yuval Levin, who are on the right side. So that’s when I start thinking, “Oh, we might really be getting some consensus here.” Speaking of institutions, one of those is the family, and I want to read a quote from the book that I took down.

You write “the economist Isabel Sawhill calculates that the rise in single parenting since 1970 has increased the child poverty rate by about 25%.” That’s a pretty whopping statistic. And, as we talk about this aspect of social decline, I wonder what you see the role of public policy being in this sort of space. Take the example of marriage. It’s clearly important; the data shows us, [and] I think a lot of common sense and life experience tells us that. Is there a role for policy to play, even if tangentially so?

Yeah, I’d say the first thing is that those of us on the progressive end need to acknowledge the role of family and marriage. There were decades when we, on the Left, were reluctant to, and you may remember Daniel Patrick Moynihan was savaged for emphasizing that issue, and he was seen as victim blaming. But it’s not victim blaming; it’s recognizing the reality, and there are plenty of kids in single family homes who do fantastically well, but, on average, boys especially don’t have as good outcomes. They’re also more likely to live in poverty, partly because there’s only one income coming in. So what can we do about it? The Bush administration, the George W. Bush administration, tried various marriage promotion schemes, and they were tested rigorously as they were introduced, and they just did not work. You tell people to get married; it doesn’t really work.

It’s often rooted in economics; if men have more income, they become more marriageable. If they don’t and if they have criminal records, they’re less marriageable. So what does work to increase marriage rates? There are two things that do. One, as I suggested, is giving young, disadvantaged men commercial skills so that they have a more stable job and income. Career academies, for example, is a program for at-risk high school students. It gives them a skill like carpentry or plumbing or to be an electrician, and that increases the likelihood that they will be in a two parent household, raising kids in that context. The other thing that seems to work is helping girls avoid unplanned pregnancies. If a 16-year-old girl has a baby, then she’s more likely to drop out of school, raise that child in poverty, and less likely to marry. If she can avoid that unplanned pregnancy when she’s 16, then she’s more likely—in her twenties—to get married and to raise her children in a more stable environment. So far, the things that really seem to work are help with family planning for young people and providing and raising incomes effectively for young men in particular.

So it goes back to this theme that you talk about, especially in the conclusion, about human development and the development of our human capital—how we’ve disinvested from ourselves. And just to go back to what you were just talking about with the marriageability of men via mechanisms like having a job and stuff like that, you talk about the question of teach a man to fish vs. give a man a fish. So I want to read another quote, where you and your wife write, “Society needs to focus much more on jobs for two reasons. First, it is more politically sustainable for the government to provide work for the needy than to mail benefit checks. Second, working class jobs are often a source not just of income but of self-worth and identity.”

So, in this question of jobs versus checks, you seem to be coming down more on the jobs side of the debate. And then I just wanted to bring in some current affairs, where Senator Mitt Romney’s expanded child allowance proposal has generated a lot of debate. The New York Times editorial board more or less endorsed it; maybe that’s too strong a word, but they came out with a pretty favorable view. So what’s your stance on that Romney-style plan: Would you rather see more federal dollars being funneled towards job training programs, like some of those that you just mentioned?

In general, I’d say conservatives have tended to emphasize the importance of the dignity of labor, and liberals have more emphasized redistribution and providing incomes. At that theoretical level, I think conservatives are right; I think there’s good data about this: the self esteem and sense of self efficacy that comes with the job. But, at the policy level, I think conservatives screw up. They tend to create all these barriers to getting benefits by insisting that people go and look for jobs, and those don’t work. What they end up doing is just cutting people off from benefits.

What you need to do is provide people with skills or with incentives to get more jobs. So the earned income tax credit, for example, is a good bipartisan program that both parties like that increases the rewards of a job. It’s kind of an incentive to hold jobs, and that should be expanded. The essence of the Romney plan, for example, is really a kind of child allowances. And that is something that just about every advanced country does, except the U.S. Canada used it to reduce child poverty by about 20%; it was part of the British plan that reduced child poverty by 50%, and there have been various estimates that Joe Biden has a version of it that—together with other things—would reduce child poverty in the U.S. by 50%. So there are advantages to both the Romney approach to that, which goes through the social security administration, vs. the Biden approach, which goes through the IRS.

But I just got to say it is so thrilling that we are having a conversation about whether the Republican plan or the Democratic plan to attack child poverty is better. I just think this is a huge moral stain on the U.S., and it’s not just a moral stain; it holds America back. If you try to think about our competitive challenges from China, we’re not going to address those competitive challenges with China by tightening intellectual property protections. We’re going to address the competitive gaps with China by educating our kids and giving them the ability to be numerate, to be literate, to compete in the job market, and that’s what we have historically failed to do. It’s thrilling to see both Biden and Romney competing to address those problems.

To bring Daniel Patrick Moynihan back into the conversation, he wrote a book called Family and Nation back in the ’80s at some point. And he said pretty much exactly what you just said: how the prevalence and pervasiveness of child poverty in the United States is a moral stain on the country. He says we eradicated, more or less, elder, senior poverty, but that’s because seniors can vote, and children can’t.

Exactly. And I think that there’s this misperception that children are resilient, and it’s too bad if these kids are living in poverty, but they don’t really have a standard of comparison; they may not know that they’re poor. So they’ll go through some difficult years, but they’re not going to starve to death, and then they’ll recover. In fact, we now know that is just not true, and it’s not so much the poverty itself that is scarring; it’s the trauma that is often linked to it in one way or another. It’s violence in the home; it’s homelessness; it’s instability; it’s parents splitting up; and this sense of adverse childhood experiences, of ACEs, directly corresponds to things like suicide in adulthood and also to medical conditions in adulthood.

One of the sort of fascinating things I did at one point was visit a brain scanning laboratory in Seattle that was looking at the brains of infants. In these little kids you could see the impact of poverty on their brain development, this crucial period, the first thousand days. And as I think back to the kids on my old school bus and what would have made a difference, I think it would—above all—have been outreach to help those kids early in life. One of the reasons our anti-poverty efforts in America don’t do better is we start too late. We need to help kids early on.

You talk about early childhood education in the book, like you were just referencing there, and some of the parts of the book that really stuck with me were when you would talk about fetal development. You’re talking about babies’ brains development—how these conditions of poverty and where the parents are coming from, from educational and nutritional standpoints, all that, it’s already starting to have an effect from day one and even before. And it goes back to the tightrope analogy, how we have to, yes, acknowledge human agency and responsibility but, at the same time, take a step back and think about all the factors that are going into success vs. non-success, people falling off the tightrope.

Yeah. One of the people that we write about in Tightrope was my closest childhood neighbor, Mike Stepp, who I’d walk to the school bus with every day, and then we’d walk back later. He ended up abusing drugs and alcohol. He couldn’t get a good job but used drugs and alcohol; he was homeless. Yet he remained a good guy and a good friend. He died recently, at the age of 55, and I was thinking about what killed him. The death certificate will say a heart attack, but the roots of that were really laid very, very early on.

His mother was an alcoholic. Nobody knows, but I suspect he may have been born with fetal alcohol spectrum effects; 2% of American kids are, and those kids are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol as adults. He had a traumatic childhood; the father was violent in the home, would beat him, would beat [his] wife. And I don’t think there was a book in the house. I don’t remember a book in their house. So he dropped out of high school and a kid like that, if you’re a high school dropout who has been traumatized, who has a predisposition to alcohol or drugs, you’re cooked. Did Mike make bad choices? Of course, he did. He admitted it, but we made bad choices as a society by not providing more support, by not fighting to keep him in school. And the consequences were disastrous not only for Mike but also for his wife and two kids. He stiffed them for $68,000 in child support. He left his wife just struggling to raise these two kids, and she did a fantastic job. But there’s just way too much of that around the country.

It’s just so much lost potential—what Mike could have been under different circumstances. So to close, we can talk about Mike and what would have helped. And one thing that I just wanted to touch on—you mentioned the research of Raj Chetty, I believe, in the book. Different economists, political scientists, sociologists have thought about the idea that what a child is surrounded with has a huge impact. It’s not just family; it’s what sort of neighborhood they’re in. There’ve been some really interesting policy experiments with giving people vouchers to move to different neighborhoods. How do you think about those policies? Because on the one hand, they seem really promising, but they also could hollow out a community, like Yamhill or others that are struggling, where the social capital has been depleted [and] the jobs have been depleted. Maybe some of these communities might not last, so to speak, if we instituted a vouchers program, stuff like that. So what are your thoughts on those sorts of innovations?

So as somebody who deeply loves Yamhill, I deeply believe in interventions that help a specific community, geographic interventions. Frankly, they don’t have a good record. It’s been hard to help communities with economic development, but what has worked is things like moving to opportunity, that Raj Chetty program you mentioned. They’ve been things like early childhood education, two generation programs; you help an adult, who’s got a substance abuse problem, wean them off of that, and then that is going to help their kids too. One in seven American kids has a parent who is wrestling with addiction, and that obviously has consequences to the parent, but it also has consequences for the child.

I think one of the lessons of all this is that there’s no silver bullet, but there is—in a sense—silver buckshot. There are a lot of little things that make a difference. And they’re hard, but vis-à-vis kids we haven’t tried hard enough. We were embarrassed by veteran homelessness as a country, so we put a lot of effort into addressing that under President Obama. And we were able to reduce veteran homelessness by half, which is not perfect but sure is an awful lot better than it was. If we could be similarly embarrassed by our levels of child homelessness, I think it’s plausible that we could reduce that by half. That’s not good enough; there would still be a lot of kids who were homeless, but, boy, that would be a step forward. I’m hoping that these days, under President Biden, there really will be a serious effort to try to address this moral and practical stain on America. And I think the best leverage we have to improve America in the long run is going to be to try to empower and support America’s struggling kids.

And, as we go about that, tools like Tightrope will be essential. So I hope everyone gives it a read. And, Nicholas, thanks so much for being here and taking the time.

Oh my pleasure. I enjoyed the conversation.

Thank you.

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