August 9, 2020

Event Coverage Highlight

Kristof and WuDunn Discuss ‘Tightrope’

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn talk about their book ‘Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope’ at Club Quarters. Photo: Chad Bouchard

by Emily Brown and Chad Bouchard

OPC member and New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, along with his wife and co-author, business executive Sheryl WuDunn, started to see troubling trends during visits to Kristof’s home town of Yamhill, Oregon several years ago. The journalists found many of the classmates Kristof grew up with were suffering or had died from a host of problems including drugs, suicide, alcohol, obesity and reckless accidents. That sparked a dive into research that uncovered a matrix of issues gripping rural, working-class communities across the country.

On Feb. 20, Kristof and WuDunn joined the OPC to talk about the book about their findings, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, which focuses on the crisis facing America’s working class and “how our country could have let tens of millions of people suffer an excruciating loss of jobs, dignity, lives, hopes and children, and how we can recover.”

The co-authors found that Yamhill had lost many of the blue-collar jobs that previously kept the county afloat, and through conversations with Kristof’s former classmates and friends, they open a window into lives destroyed by decades of policy failures. Kristof told attendees that the crisis does not stem from “just one president,” but is the culmination of “50 years of bipartisan failures that have to be addressed.”

“In some ways it felt like there was this Great Depression out there, this social Great Depression, but the big contrast was that it wasn’t like the 1930s when output was declining. This is the time when American economic output is soaring, when the market is doing fantastically, while corporate profits are doing brilliantly. And yet there is a demographic that is absolutely going through a depression,” he said, adding that desperate conditions in those communities have worsened mortality rates for the whole country.

WuDunn said there are solutions for problems such as social inequity in places like Yamhill, but voters and policy makers have to stop “psyching themselves out” with destructive myths and patterns of thought. One of those, she said, is the idea that each person is only responsible for themselves, and that the government shouldn’t help. She cited the popular aphorism “pick yourself up by your bootstraps,” which originally meant to do the impossible, but somehow in the 1970s took on the meaning of self-determination.

“We give people second chances in America all the time. If you file for bankruptcy, you get a second chance. If you file for bankruptcy again, you get a third chance. If you file for bankruptcy a third time, you get another chance. You can even run for president. You can even win the presidency,” she said. “Why can’t we give second and third chances to people who are struggling in the working class? Society should look at collective social responsibility.”

Click the widow below to watch clips from the program.