Life on a Tightrope: Where Are The Nets?

Nicholas Kristof is an award-winning reporter for the New York Times, and husband to Sheryl WuDunn, a business executive and writer. The couple often work together and have won two Pulitzer prizes. In 2020 they wrote Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, a close look at the Oregon community that was Kristof’s childhood home. A sobering study that has also been rendered as a documentary, Tightrope is a compelling and haunting account of lives cut short, people with few dreams and fewer hopes. The authors cite national figures, such as stagnant median wages, but the heart of the book are local tragedies. Roughly one in four of Kristof’s 1970s classmates do not make it to their late middle ages, felled by drugs, violence, obesity or other factors that a robust security net could prevent. The book is a terrible reckoning, with the latter sections advocating for changes in policy and practice. Not unlike many other accounts of poverty, Tightrope is a stark clarion call on behalf of many Americans who are suffering.

Yamhill, Oregon, was Kristoff’s home and the primary focus of the book. Under an hour’s drive from Portland, this rural community is much farther away in terms of opportunity and sense of future. Tightrope offers tale after tale of unemployment, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, incarceration, homelessness, drug addiction, alcoholism, bad luck and poor choices. The characters are drawn as whole people. Many of them are friends of Kristof and their families have known each other for decades. Is survival and comfort a matter of luck? Hard work? The right supports? Importantly, the authors stress that while everyone can make poor choices, the working poor in American in the past fifty years can rarely afford even a single mistake. Moreover, a mistake free life is no longer a guarantee. National figures and studies by economists bear this out. Two economists, Case and Deaton, won the 2015 Nobel Prize for their analysis of middle age “deaths of despair.” In many ways, Tightrope is a case study of their work, putting human faces on everyday tragedies.

The authors claim that the decline in working class American lifestyle is not a partisan issue. They critique the war on drugs, decry the absence of affordable health care and child support, and plead for more reproductive health care and education. The benefit of unions is emphasized, as are efforts to make sure that the safety net is strong. The importance of stable families is also a recurring theme. The fortunate ones from Yamhill had loving, supportive and stable families. Regardless, partisan politics and the ways that partisan politics frames issues is woven throughout the lives of all in the book. Gender issues, government supports, the criminal justice system and much more are discussed by the people of Yamhill through partisan language.

Kristoff and WuDunn’s arguments to help all Americans call for massive policy changes, systemic reforms that rarely align with broad American partisan politics today. It is one thing to make claims about the benefits of direct support for children in poverty. It is another thing to make that happen as policy across the nation. The country and many in the US see poverty as an individual problem, not a societal concern.

What can be done? As an educator, I hoped to read in Tightrope about the power of schools and colleges to transform lives, to help people overcome that mistake and find their way to a more comfortable life. Finishing high school is a precursor to virtually all jobs in the US. There’s tremendous data, too, that clearly demonstrates that finishing a college degree is the best guarantor of middle class income and lifestyle. Sadly, many of Kristoff’s classmates fell away from the education ladder, either not finishing high school or not making it to college. The authors do reference an influential teacher or program here and there, but in all candor, the education system in Oregon does not take a leading role in the book. Was this a function of age? Was Kristof’s generation hit unusually hard by a confluence of factors? One wonders how things are different – or not – for younger generations.

Higher education can make a real difference, directly and to communities. Community colleges and four year institutions, working in tandem, can reduce tuition costs, provide wraparound services, partner with local businesses in search of employees, and provide real and meaningful opportunities. Higher education can listen to students concerns, treat students as valuable individuals worthy of care, attention and investment. With or without other societal changes, higher education can transform lives at scale. There is tremendous need in our communities. The most important message I took away from Tightrope is that if we can convince more Americans that they are smart, important, and able to be successful as college graduates, regardless of their age or prior experiences, we’ll have many more happy, healthy, and financial secure neighbors.

David Potash

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