“Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope” is a timely and insightful book on a wide range of contemporary social issues in the United States, including drugs, joblessness, homelessness, incarceration and much more. The authors are Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, husband and wife recipients of the Pulitzer Prize for journalism and authors of four previous books.
This is also a highly personal book, centered around the lives and families of Kristof’s childhood friends and neighbors in Yamhill, Oregon. Throughout the book, we learn about the families whose kids rode the No. 6 school bus with young Nick, many of whom are now dead from drug overdoses, suicide, reckless driving or obesity.
In some respects, Tightrope has some of the same emotional impact as recent autobiographical accounts of social and economic survival, such as J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” Sarah Smarsh’s “Heartland” and Tara Westover’s “Educated.” In this case, however, the focus is not on the one person who escaped but on the many who were unable to do so. And, although Smarsh and the others generalize from their personal experience to offer some valuable social criticism, Kristof and WuDunn dig much more deeply into the many interrelated factors that have decimated families and undermined hope in America during the past four decades.
As the authors point out, we Americans like to think of ourselves as exceptional, as “No. 1.” But on almost every social index our country rates much lower than most Americans realize. Our health care system, the authors note (page 151), is exceptional in ways we should not celebrate: “We lack universal care, we spend more on health and we get worse results.” There are more people in our country with criminal records than college degrees, and there are more jails and prisons than there are colleges and universities. Inequality is higher in the United States than in any other developed country. Life expectancy, which had been increasing for decades, has been declining in the last few years.
The authors identify some villains, such as Big Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis, but a more dominant theme is that we as Americans all bear some responsibility for the current sorry state of affairs. Individual responsibility is important, but it is too often used as an excuse to blame victims. It is collective irresponsibility, the authors argue, that has seriously declined in the last half century. The country that pioneered public education has seen its educational achievements fall below those of many other countries. The country that built a strong middle class after World War II with the GI Bill and decent wages for workers has let both wages and investments in education stagnate.
Not all the personal examples are downers. Kristof and WuDunn offer numerous cases of positive change, such as Women in Recovery (supporting women recovering from addiction) in Oklahoma and Targeting Our People’s Priorities with Service (TOPPS, supporting youth) in Arkansas. There is also the moving story of the homeless Nigerian immigrant youngster in New York who learned chess from a dedicated teacher at his school, then won a citywide tournament in his age group. After his achievements were publicized, the family was provided a home. A GoFundMe effort raised $250,000 for the family, but they decided to use the money to assist other struggling immigrant families rather than for themselves. The book’s overwhelming message is that we need to do a much better job of investing in our country’s social capital — in childcare, education, jobs and at-risk people. Public policies need to be changed, but there are also valuable interventions that can be made by individuals and nonprofit organizations. Following the book’s 20 chapters is an appendix titled “Ten Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes to Make a Difference.”
There are many more valuable insights in this book. My favorite is a term that I think is used only twice in the book. In one place (page 66), the authors advocate a “morality of grace” and in another (page 188) an “ethic of grace.” In both cases, they are talking about investing in people for their well-being and benefit to the society, rather than for their merit, however that might be defined. Examples of grace-based programs and interventions abound, from providing housing for the homeless to treating drug usage as a medical issue rather than a crime. I was attracted to this book for several reasons. I enjoy reading Kristof’s columns in the New York Times. Also, I grew up in Salem, Oregon, about 35 miles from Kristof’s Yamhill. Like Kristof, I have been lucky, but his stories reminded me some of my own friends and relatives who have not been so fortunate.
Tightrope is available at the Manhattan Public Library (temporarily closed because of the coronavirus pandemic). I recommend the book to all who care about our society and who might be looking for ways to think about, understand, and do something about its major problems.
William L. Richter is professor emeritus of political science and former associate provost for international programs at Kansas State University.