Are We Punishing the Poor?
Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn: Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope. Knopf, 2020.

Are We Punishing the Poor?

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn detail how US life expectancy is declining as misguided government policies punish the poor. The Pulitzer Prize-winning co-authors weave history and policy analysis into profiles of working-class Americans.

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the first husband-and-wife team to share a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, won for their book Half the Sky. They co-wrote the bestsellers A Path Appears, Thunder from the East and China Wakes. Kristof, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, also won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for his columns on Darfur. An experienced journalist, WuDunn served at The Times as a business editor and foreign correspondent.

In Tightrope, Kristof and WuDunn detail the United States’ shift from progressive to conservative policies that emphasize personal – not collective – responsibility for individual hardships. They report that a stagnant standard of living has afflicted working-class people in the United States since the 1970s, and it contributes to the first persistent life expectancy decline in the United States in a century. The co-authors weave history and policy analysis into profiles of working-class Americans. They make several policy recommendations, including one striking note: Focus remedial actions on children in poverty.

The economic and social fabric for much of American has been ripped apart and this is expensive for everyone.

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Because this work challenges conservative ideology, critics on the right may  dismiss it. But Kristof and WuDunn do not offer propaganda or a deliberately political position. They gathered terrifying hard data about the decline in living standard among working-class Americans, and they interweave it with anecdotes from those most affected by this decline.

Life Expectancy 

The authors open with the astonishing news that United Stages’ life expectancy has declined for three years in a row for the first time since 1919. Young Americans are 55% more likely to die by age 19 than youth in other wealthy countries. Kristof and WuDunn cite alcoholism (88,000), drug overdoses (68,000) and suicides (more than 47,000) as accounting for at least 203,000 US deaths a year – that’s more people dead every two weeks than all Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The authors reveal their perspective when they characterize these alcohol and drug-related deaths and suicides as “deaths of despair.” And they make their theme explicit with their title. In their view, working-class Americans with a high school education live on “a tightrope.” One wrong step can devastate adults, their children and their grandchildren.

The US Decline

To emphasize the depth of the decline they see in Americans’ well being, the authors offer the 2018 Social Progress Index, which ranked the United States 32nd in internet access, 39th in access to clean water, 40th in child mortality, 50th in personal safety and 61st in high school enrollment. Peer countries lead the United States in high school graduation and health care access. Today’s median net worth of US households is lower than it was in 2000, and median wages for workers without college degrees stand well below 1979 levels.

American exceptionalism these days often runs in the wrong direction: we’re frequently exceptional because of economic and social pathologies we suffer to a much greater degree than other advanced nations.

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Moreover, as Kristof and WuDunn chronicle, childhood has become deadlier in the United States than in other advanced nations. About 13 million boys and girls live in poverty, including roughly two million in “extreme poverty” –  that is, in homes with a daily income of about $2.22. On a typical night, about 115,000 children are homeless. While the authors are passionate about the horrors they describe, they hew strictly to the facts.

Erroneous Government Policies

Kristof and WuDunn present another central theme: working class calamities originate in government policy errors over decades. The authors list mass incarceration during the “war on drugs,” inadequate health insurance, unequal public education, “systemic underinvestment in children,” and tax laws and court decisions that favor the rich.

The wealthy have also fought to underfund and defang the Internal Revenue Service so it doesn’t have the resources to audit or fight dubious deductions.

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

They encourage the government to help working-class Americans by, for example, funding programs to promote early childhood development and family planning for low-income teenage girls. They reveal that one in four American girls becomes pregnant by age 19. The authors explain that, because local property taxes pay for public education, predominately white, affluent areas have better schools that funnel students to top-rated universities. Impoverished areas with African-American or Hispanic populations suffer substandard schools.

Personal – Not Collective – Responsibility

Kristof and WuDunn unpack a crucial shift in American policy. They maintain that Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 fueled disdain for welfare recipients and fed into the cynical belief that government produces more problems than it solves. Unlike other advanced countries, the United States cut taxes on the wealthy and cut social services. The authors detail how working-class jobs evaporated, drug use proliferated and families disintegrated under the impact of these policies.

Kristof and WuDunn lament how Americans have come to view poverty as a consequence of “personal failure.” The belief that poor people can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” accelerated in the 1970s, especially among people who attribute their success to their individual initiative.

Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign won precincts in which white people ages 40 to 64 suffered high death rates. The authors interviewed Trump supporter, Dave Peper of Yamhill, Oregon, who has been through periods of homelessness seven times and who carries a handgun. Another interviewee, Mary Mayor, was homeless for year. Her vote for Trump was the first ballot she ever cast because Trump “believes in the American people.”

Tragically, it didn’t work out as hoped. The Knapps, like so many other working-class families, tumbled into unimaginable calamity.

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Kristof and WuDunn compare and contrast American attitudes toward drug addiction with those of people from other nations. The United States treat drug addiction as a criminal problem, while Portugal treats it as a public health issue. Drug use and drug-related deaths soared in America and dropped in Portugal, which has the lowest rate of drug use fatalities in Western Europe. The authors regard the war on drugs as a catastrophe and point out that it left 70 million Americans with criminal records and impaired employment opportunities.

Eight Actions

Kristof and WuDunn utilize their knowledge of America’s decline to suggest a number of actions that might forestall it, including expanding Medicare to reduce unequal access to health care and lowering Medicare eligibility from age 65 to age 50 for those without job-based coverage. They also suggest to expand access to high-quality early childhood programs, to pay a government-funded monthly allowance for each child in every household, or to give all Americans – at birth – an account with $2,000, and allow them to make withdrawals for education, retirement, buying a home or investing in a business. Maybe most radically, they propose to establish a “right to work” for everyone and provide government-guaranteed employment.

Progressive Fundamentals

Kristof and WuDunn offer a classic study of an ongoing problem that is of interest across the political spectrum. In this book, which seems likely to become a classic textbook in the future, the authors provide a powerful, damning portrait of a wounded nation and urge readers to take action.

Share this Story