Why are so many struggling so much? How can we help them? The best book on American poverty today.
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, 2020
Five of five stars*****
It's a mystery. With the world's biggest economy and some of the biggest, most profitable companies, large parts of America have been sliding deeper and deeper into depression and dysfunction. Why, with all the money being generated by our economy, are more and more people being sucked down into meaningless lives and deaths of despair? Why are more and more people being killed before their time by suicide, drug abuse, and alcoholism?
This book was written before the Covid-19 pandemic and recession, which promise to only make things worse for the people who are most vulnerable.
There have been many pages written to try and figure out this central paradox of the American dream, and none so brilliantly as this book by Mr. Kristof and his wife. Nicholas Kristof is a New York Times columnist and shares a Pulitzer Prize with his wife, Sheryl Wudunn. In this book they do an excellent job of combining real-life stories of those struggling on the fringes with chilling statistics and insightful discussions.
Tightrope is a dark and disturbing book to read, but the authors make sure to supply inspirational stories as well of people who are making a difference. The final two chapters are chock full of policy ideas and simple challenges for everyday people who want to help fix America's broken spirit.
Much of the book is focused on Kristof's childhood home town, Yamhill, Oregon, a rural community that has struggled with the changing economy. Nearly a quarter of the children who rode the school bus with him died at a young age from drug and alcohol abuse, and most grew up facing broken homes, unemployment, incarceration, and drug abuse. Kristoff visits with people from that town that he remembers and they share their intimate struggles. One family he visits lost 4 of 5 children, with the 5th having been saved only because he was in prison.
Kristof and his wife Sheryl Wudunn, both of whom are liberals from New York, speak compassionately about the communities they visit, most of which are Trump loving conservative ones. These people who are in the most need of public help are ironically the ones who are most opposed to social programs that would benefit them the most. The central premise of the book is that those in the top half of the American economy travel a wide and forgiving road where mistakes are rarely costly and support is always available. Those in the more vulnerable bottom half of the economy walk a tightrope- a precarious and lonely struggle where even tiny mistakes can mean lasting damage, shame, and permanent shunning to an unemployable and irredeemable underclass.
One of America's central beliefs about poverty, especially among conservatives, is that those who fail are in some way to blame for their failures. Poor choices and lack or responsibility are the reasons they fall down and only they can pick themselves back up. More than many advanced countries, America demonizes the poor and judges them, so that they are seen as defective and somewhat less than human. Kristof argues for the principle of a morality of grace, where we see the possibilities of redemption in every person and give them a hand up through both social programs and private charities.
The authors look at the problem from both a global and historical perspective. Globally, America is among the most punitive and least generous countries when it comes to poverty programs. Historically, this wasn't always true, and things started going the wrong direction around the 1970's, when major changes started hitting the US regarding economics, drugs, inequality, and race relations. No one knows exactly why the US started diverging from the rest of the world in so many areas at this time, but an excellent book Why We're Polarized, by Ezra Klein, lays the blame mostly at racial animosity, which these authors also point to.
Here are some of the biggest problems the authors focus on that are worsening the situation:
- Wages have stagnated since the 1970's. The current minimum wage of $7.25 and hour should actually be $22 an hour if inflation and productivity increases were taken into account. This amounts to $1 Trillion being taken from the bottom of the population and redistributed to the top 1%. This loss of income puts much of America in a day-to-day struggle to pay their bills with no room for savings.
- Unemployment rates have risen in rural areas, so much that official numbers no longer count the many who have given up looking because of health, criminal records, or drug dependency. The loss of jobs is pointed to as the central factor in the dissolution of marriages and breakups of families. Huge numbers of men in prime working years have turned to drugs and worse when they lost hope of ever being productive citizens again.
- The drug industry has seized on this vulnerability with the opioid epidemic that has devastated rural areas from Oregon to the Appalachians. Instead of treating drug addictions states have instead locked more abusers in prisons, wasting public funds that could have been used to help them.
- The frayed American health care system has little to offer those at the bottom and many put off essential care and treatment. The authors follow a group of volunteer doctors called Remote Area Medical, that served 2300 rural poor Americans in 3 days with basic medical, dental, and eye care. Seniors, because they vote more, have a national health care system, while children, who can't vote, are the most neglected and vulnerable when it comes to medical and mental health care.
- There is a housing crisis among lower-income Americans, with approximately half a million being homeless at any one time. Because of perverse incentives, rich Americans get tax breaks for mortgages while poor families in some areas must fight for section 8 housing or voucher programs. Housing has become unaffordable in many metropolitan areas on the East and West coast.
- Poor children, more than anybody else, are suffering from the chaos that comes from broken families, addicted parents, and little guidance. One elementary teacher the authors interviewed said some kindergarten students entering the system as "feral", with no idea how to behave in school because of their dysfunctional families. Stress hormones such as cortisol can produce PERMANENT BRAIN DAMAGE in children below the age of five, making them less able to control their impulses, emotions and brains. Children who go through adverse childhood experiences (ACE) such as divorces, homelessness, sexual abuse, or domestic violence, are more at risk for poor choices later on.
This is a difficult book to read, and the authors weave personal stories with national statistics to paint a bleak picture of the underbelly of America. It makes the reader both discouraged and enraged in wanting to see these problems addressed at both a local and national level.
Luckily, the authors spend quite a bit of time with people who are doing something about helping those who are most vulnerable. For some lucky few, the military has proven to be a way out of despair and dysfunction, providing welcome structure to those who have none. Unfortunately, the military won't accept many young people already addicted to drugs or with other problems. Some churches and private charities have also had success with reaching out to those who are struggling.
There are some wonderful, inspirational stories to spare inside this book that renew your faith in humanity. A woman who is shot in the face by a young teen not only forgives the young man who shot her, but starts to communicate with him and helps to get him out of jail early. Another woman devotes her entire life to helping troubled teens with a program to counsel them and keep them off the streets. A concerned teacher talked a young Anne Curry into applying for college, something none in her family could dream of, and she goes on to be a network news anchor. And in Tulsa, a program called Women in Recovery helps drug addicts break the addiction cycle and return to work.
Possibly the most helpful thing that many of us take for granted is the presence of strong, stable families. The decline of the American family that started in the 1970's has had devastating effects on its children. The twin family-killers of unemployment and mass incarceration have left many children in one-parent homes or foster homes. Encouraging extended, stable and loving families is something that the authors recommend prioritizing. The authors also point to the saving graces of marriage, showing that even without children, the presence of a spouse tempers the worst behaviors when they makes their partner accountable and supports their recovery attempts.
This book is a call to action to counter the forces of despair and hopelessness that robs so many of productive, happy lives. The prescriptions that the authors propose are hard to imagine being passed by what passes as our political system today. Socialistic programs like universal health coverage, early childhood programs, and high school graduation are one way to help the most vulnerable and treatable before they lose hope. They also recommend more programs to end unwanted pregnancies, monthly child allowances, $2000 savings bonds for each child born, and programs to end childhood homelessness.
These are all expensive social programs that would never pass in the "you're on your own" ethos that has ruled since the 1980's. This is the paradox of America. We want everybody to succeed on their own- use their ingenuity and hard work to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. But they often can't. Worse yet, in the case of children, they are too fragile to be expected to go out on their own. One chapter in this book is called "We eat our young."
It may seem easier to say that those who fail deserved to fail because of their poor choices. Certainly some of the people in this book made horrible choices. But everybody should be given a second chance, and children should all be given a decent chance.
Our society is more stratified and unequal than ever, and the path to the top is unavailable to most. The American Dream is dead in rural parts of the country, which is why so many have turned to drugs and despair. So do you let them all die and pass on their misery to future generations? Alternatively, do you step in and introduce programs like job training, drug treatment, financial education, and universal healthcare to help them out?
At some point we as a society need to take a good look at what we are doing to the least of us. We need leaders who are less cynical and more compassionate, and hopefully books like this show that more of that is coming in the decade ahead.
Groups recommended by Kristof and Wudunn, especially devoted to childhood poverty:
Save the Children
Big Brothers/ Big Sisters
National Coalition for the Homeless