Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope

by Nicholas D. Kristof

Paperback, 2020

Status

Available

Publication

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2020), 320 pages

Description

Politics. Sociology. Nonfiction. HTML:The Pulitzer Prize-winning authors of the acclaimed, best-selling Half the Sky now issue a plea??deeply personal and told through the lives of real Americans??to address the crisis in working-class America, while focusing on solutions to mend a half century of governmental failure. With stark poignancy and political dispassion, Tightrope draws us deep into an "other America." The authors tell this story, in part, through the lives of some of the children with whom Kristof grew up, in rural Yamhill, Oregon, an area that prospered for much of the twentieth century but has been devastated in the last few decades as blue-collar jobs disappeared. About one-quarter of the children on Kristof's old school bus died in adulthood from drugs, alcohol, suicide, or reckless accidents. And while these particular stories unfolded in one corner of the country, they are representative of many places the authors write about, ranging from the Dakotas and Oklahoma to New York and Virginia. But here too are stories about resurgence, among them: Annette Dove, who has devoted her life to helping the teenagers of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, as they navigate the chaotic reality of growing up poor; Daniel McDowell, of Baltimore, whose tale of opioid addiction and recovery suggests that there are viable ways to solve our nation's drug epidemic. These accounts provide a picture of working-class families needlessly but profoundly damaged as a result of decades of policy mistakes. With their superb, nuanced reportage, Kristof and WuDunn have given us a book that is both riveting and impossible to i… (more)

Rating

(59 ratings; 4.2)

Media reviews

Poor and working-class Americans start out with countless disadvantages, and the social safety net that ought to help them recover from missteps has been systematically slashed by 50 years of mean-spirited social policy — even as corporations and the wealthy have enjoyed steadily growing
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government subsidies and a steadily more permissive regulatory environment. ... The intended audience for “Tightrope” isn’t clear. The authors inform us that their main goal is to “tell stories” rather than explore “policy alternatives,” because only storytelling is likely to convince conservatives that the woes of the working class can’t just be chalked up to personal irresponsibility. On these points, conservatives are unlikely to be persuaded, and liberals are unlikely to require persuasion.
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4 more
Historically, economic crisis breeds fear and vulnerability to manipulation by authoritarians among groups perceiving a loss of power; racism is indeed rife in a country built on white supremacy. But “Tightrope” catches what many analyses miss about struggling communities across color lines: an
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undercurrent of self-hatred, in which people blame themselves for bad outcomes and are loath to ask for a “handout.” ... “Tightrope” thus concludes that America’s true exceptionalism is our lack of concern for one another. ... “Tightrope”’s greatest strength is its exaltation of the common person’s voice, bearing expert witness to troubles that selfish power has wrought.
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Tightrope is a convincing argument that it's not too late to change the course of the nation. "We remain optimistic about what is possible," Kristof and WuDunn write. It's also an agonizing account of how apathy and cruelty have turned America into a nightmare for many of its less fortunate
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citizens. ... It's difficult to read, and it was surely difficult to write, but it feels — now more than ever — deeply necessary.
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Husband and wife journalists Kristof and WuDunn (A Path Appears) turn a compassionate lens on the failed state of working-class American communities in this stark, fluidly written portrait.... Kristof and WuDunn avoid pity while creating empathy for their subjects, and effectively advocate for a
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“morality of grace” to which readers should hold policy makers accountable. This essential, clear-eyed account provides worthy solutions to some of America’s most complex socioeconomic problems.
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Pulitzer Prize winners Kristof and WuDunn (A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, 2014, etc.) zero in on working-class woes and how to ease them. With an earnest blend of shoe-leather reporting and advocacy for social justice, the married journalists send a clear message to
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anyone who wants to see working-class Americans prosper: Stop blaming them for making “bad choices” and for failing to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.” While acknowledging the need for personal responsibility—and for aid from private charities—the authors make a forceful case that the penalties for missteps fall unequally on the rich and poor in spheres that include education, health care, employment, and the judicial system.... An ardent and timely case for taking a multipronged approach to ending working-class America’s long decline.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member Katyefk
Very well written and researched book. Yamhill, Oregon is about 1 hour away where we live and to read about the "backstory" of this community was eye-opening and concerning to say the least.
This book should be required reading for all high school and college level students and their families along
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with all community members and legislators.
We can no longer live our lives as if others don't matter or that it is their "fault" that they are in the situations they are in. Community safety nets are essential for our society to grow and prosper. Most of us have our own personally constructed versions of these "nets" but so many do not. This affects all of us from enjoying a stable and thriving society and has led to many of the social unrest issues we are currently experiencing.
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LibraryThing member ecataldi
This book should be required reading. It's insightful, depressing, yet still ultimately hopeful. Pulitzer Prize winning couple write a gut wrenching account of how America has ultimately failed it's people in the last half century through the lens of author Nicholas D. Kristof's hometown, Yamhill
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and a few other US locations. From a broken education, prison, health system and more; the authors explain how the system used to be, how it is now, and what can be done to fix it to bring the United States back up to speed with the rest of the industrialized first world countries. There are lots of personal stories and photos that really hammer down HOW these policies really affect many Americans. It is very depressing but at the same time the authors make sure to highlight social programs that people have started to combat issues of addiction, homelessness, and college education. It's an enlightening and ultimately inspiring book. Do yourself a favor and read this book before you vote! Then pass on this book to everyone you know!!!!
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LibraryThing member nancyadair
I am a long-time reader of Nicholas Kristof's articles in the New York Times and I have read Half the Sky by Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn. I was interested in their newest book Tightrope. A few weeks ago while waiting for a talk at a local library, I picked up Tightrope from the new books
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shelf and started reading. The next day, I went out to a local bookstore and bought the book.

Yet those kids ended up riding into a cataclysm, as working-class communities disintegrated across America, felled by lost jobs, broken families and despair.~ from Tightrope by Kristof and WuDunn

Tightrope is a deeply personal book; Kristof writes about the kids who were on the bus he took to school, people who were his neighbors and friends, and what became of them. One of out four died from drugs, suicide, alcohol, recklessness, drugs, and obesity. One is homeless and one is in prison for life. And yet Kristof left that bus and became a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Their stories become the vehicle to ask the hard questions about what has happened in America.

What went wrong? What goes right for the kids who end up successful? Who, or what, is to blame? And most importantly, what can we do prevent people from falling off the narrow tightrope?

After breaking my heart, and reading the lofty goals that could change the lives of Americans, I was pleased the Appendix shared "10 Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes to Make a Difference." Political and social change takes time. But these steps are within our personal control.

We have blamed the poor for their poverty, criminalized addiction, threw troubled kids out of school, allowed health care and sound education to become an option only for the wealthy, watched children grow up with food insecurity, and punished people rather than give them the tools to be contributing members of society.

Americans need to change their minds and their policies. Kristof and WuDunn share success stories of successful local programs that have changed lives and which could be adopted on a larger scale.

"Pull yourself up by your bootstraps," after all, originally meant "do the impossible."

Some of us were lucky with parents who offered a firm foundation, teachers who took an interest and encouraged us; some of us had opportunities for education, vocational training, or qualified for the military. When a child has none of these advantages--no boots with straps to pull--their chances of success are slim.

Americans need to shrug off the paradigm of blame.

The paramount lesson of our exploration was the need to fix the escalators and create more of them to spread opportunity, restore people's dignity and spark their ingenuity.~from Tightrope by Kristof and WuDunn
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LibraryThing member nmele
Kristof and WuDunn look at what's wrong with America from the bottom, through the lens of working class people, most of them people who Kristof grew up with and ent to school with. Coincidentally, I read Thomas Friedman's "Thank You For Being Late" while reading "Tightrope". Tightrope is the better
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book, perhaps for Kristof and WuDunn it is personal. The focus is on white working class people, with side trips to hear the stories of homeless veterans and African-Americans in the South. There are, thankfully, no stereotypes in these pages; the authors see and record the humanity of the people who are data points in the decline of the American working class, in the suicide and overdose statistics, in the sense of resentment which is their legacy. The authors look at the larger picture, at what decisions and policies contribute to the current sense of crisis (before Covid-19 swept the true problems off the stage). They do not score points off one party or politician but rather focus on what can be done to improve things for the children and the grandchildren of the friends whose tragic stories they tell. This is a moving and important work of compassion and journalism.
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LibraryThing member addunn3
The authors explore their local community in Yamhill, Oregon to understand what has gone wrong for so many people in small, rural communities. Drugs, lack of education, and a changing job market has created a crisis in working class America. This is another look at America in the same vein as
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"Hillbilly Elegy".
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LibraryThing member splinfo
excellent. whatever will we do about no work in rural america? appreciated the look at help programs that are working especially in light of the current unrest. "Defund the police" partially means help in other ways that we know work, right?
LibraryThing member ltfl_stillwaterpl
excellent. Whatever will we do about work for rural America?
LibraryThing member larryerick
Who was this book directed toward? Are there really that many people out there that seriously do not already know about the people written about in this book? Apparently so. That might explain the level of superficiality that, in my opinion, mars the narrative. The detail on individuals highlighted
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in the book is often quite intimate, but expressions of programs and policies about what to do about the issues involved too often seem haphazard and/or not thoroughly drawn out. It reminded me of co-workers or conference attendees getting together after work or the daily sessions to schmooze about issues at hand, knowing full well the chances of detailed action taking place the next day or the next year was never going to come from what discussion may have been had. Perhaps, the book was aimed directly at the people mentioned in depth in the book and their family and friends in the community. That might explain why so much credit was given for trade skills and loyalty, when those attributes could also be applied to other people with completely malevolent intent. Saying a few nice things about someone is the very least that can be done to get those people to take actions in the best interest of themselves, their family, and their community, isn't it? If this is the book that it takes to get people who can make things better to take earnest steps to solve the problems emphasized in this book, so be it. I don't personally think it's nearly enough.
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LibraryThing member LDVerbos
An interesting look at what has gone wrong in America. We think we’re one of the greatest nations in the world, but yet we still consistently lag behind. The exploration in this book is fascinating as you peel through our layers. The only complaint I have is that I wish the authors would have
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further explored other areas. Most of the book is spent in Yamhill, while other areas in the country are just touched upon or mentioned in a paragraph or two.
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LibraryThing member jonerthon
While this is a compelling book by husband-and-wife authors that really want to solve the persistent poverty and addiction problems they write about, I don't think this was the right vehicle for them. They center most stories in Kristof's hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, where addiction and poverty
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have always had a foothold, but easily available meth and scarcer jobs have irreparably damaged many of the families highlighted. You do get a feel for how they've tried to do right by their kids and neighbors, but I don't know how to connect that with the rest of the book's topic.

The policy prescriptions are quite muddled, arguing for a greater collective response from the public sector but never mentioning how Congress and state legislatures have onerously de-funded or blocked the solutions they lift up as effective. And even the specific popular policy proposals of the final chapter are introduced as "big steps we urge the country to take" while ignoring that if not for obstructionist governors, legislators, and presidents we would have these already. This is my pet peeve, clearly, but if really sincere about selling these, two renowned authors and public figures wouldn't write them in great detail in your popular nonfiction book, instead putting them into policy briefs with evidence and sending to the White House and Congress, then asking in the book (and your op ed column) that your readers lobby their representatives for their passage into law! That would seem to be a more effective way to ensure that Yamhill and places like it have a promising future. Still, the authors do have it correct when they say "helping people is harder than it looks." Nonprofit and front-facing social service agency staff frequently burn out and leave their jobs because of the constant challenges of what they do, and we can do better by them.

In any case, two sources they reference are probably the most relevant texts on this topic: the National Academies' 2019 study "A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty" and the Boston Globe's in-depth survey of the life outcomes of valedictorians of urban high schools 10+ years on. Unless you are specifically interested in this corner of rural Oregon, I'd read those instead.
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LibraryThing member arosoff
This is a whistle stop tour of what's ailing america, especially the working class. A lot of it is familiar if you read Kristof's columns in the NYT (I picked up the book from the library after reading an excerpt in the Times). Kristof looks in particular at the Oregon town of his childhood, but
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highlights examples from throughout the country. It's not spectacularly deep--and can't be, with covering so many things in 300 pages--but it hits a lot of points: healthcare, education, jobs, incarceration--and successfully makes the point that we have built this with failed policy and incentives. Voters overrate moral hazard when it comes to the poor, but underrate it for the rich. They are willing to help individuals, but see the poor en masse as willing to cheat (sometimes based on experiences with family). "Personal responsibility" is presented as overriding, and liberals occasionally fall into the trap by de-emphasizing people's decisions to the point where it seems like they're characterizing the poor as solely hapless victims of fate--a characterization that the poor themselves reject. Kristof and WuDunn are careful to show that choices matter, but that luck and birth are major factors in outcomes. As they say, when there's a 20 year difference in life expectancy based solely on place of birth, we can't pin that on choices.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
“When a strong economy leaves behind Americans, who then aren’t able to contribute to America reaching its peak competitiveness, there’s a risk of collective anger surfacing. ‘History always repeats itself, so we had a revolution once, it’s going to happen again, but how long is it going
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to take to get there?’ Ethan said, standing outside the farmhouse. When we asked if he would join in, he exclaimed, “Yes, I am! I’m not going to watch it!

“They say I have a problem with control?” Ethan seethed to us. “Look dude, I have ten guns, and I can’t control myself ?” p 200

Author Nicholas Kristof grew up in rural Yamhill, Oregon. Previous generations had bought land, built houses and small farms, and found jobs that could support a family. They seemed to be reaching the American dream of upward mobility for the next generation.

But of the kids that Nicholas rode the school bus with every day to school, a large number of them had early deaths – what Kristoff calls ‘deaths by despair’ – drug overdoses and addictions, prison sentences, early pregnancies and broken families.

In this book he and his wife, coauthor Sheryl WuDunn, explore these individuals’ stories and how their families fell from the American dream. Good paying jobs disappeared from the area, and as they did, social services and education declined. As a result, when kids made a bad choice, there were none of the traditional safety nets available that in wealthier areas lend a hand and let them turn their lives around.

Well written and researched, this tells a compelling story. I would recommend this to anyone wanting to understand the anger and disenfranchisement felt by many Americans today.
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LibraryThing member write-review
We Are Better Than This, Yes?

In the past few years, books have appeared about America’s working poor and just plain poor, not to mention America’s drift to the right and our current populist phenomenon, some better than others. Kristof and WuDunn’s book is among the best on these topics for a
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couple of reasons.

The authors offer personal stories of Nicholas’ boyhood friends, boys and girls with whom he rode the bus to school and played with. These are real people who once had futures, who the author knew as nice people, some brighter than others, people like you probably grew up with, if you lived in a small town, or in the middle class part of town, if you came from a working class family. In other words, these are ordinary Americans, and they ran into a buzzsaw by virtue of birth, or job loss, or illness and lack of medical care, or bad care, and a myriad of others problems. They might look like deadbeats to some, people who made their problems; in reality, they are like us, you, me, the Kristofs, and bad decisions and an equal dose of circumstances crushed them.

Then the authors use these stories of what happened to these people, many of whom are either now dead or destitute, to explain what’s happening in America’s communities, how dysfunctional family lives, drugs, violence, excess incarceration levels, job losses, and unwanted pregnancies account not just for the plight in his hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, but of that in small towns and inner cities across America. These authors examine how millions of Americans devolved into the situations devouring them, both through their own means the compounding effect of lack of meaningful, consistent, research-based solutions to the overarching factors affecting them.

What’s more, they explore programs, although small, that are working to turn around lives, and based on this, offer a number of suggestions that could break the current cycle of despair and early dead. That’s where the hope comes in, that there are ways, many proven, that can lift many people up. The challenge, however, and it’s a huge one, is getting Americans to recognize we face a collective problem. This isn’t, as too many of us believe, simply an issue of personal responsibility. The authors acknowledge that personal responsibility plays a role here. However, they argue very effectively, based on research and in dollars and lives to be saved, that there’s a collective, national responsibility, too. If we would heed even a bit of what they have to say, if our leaders, both in government and business, would listen, if we could embrace the idea of shared responsibility, then we as individuals and as a country would ultimately be better off. It boils down to: are we better than this, better than the way we now are ignoring the issue of poverty in America, or blaming it solely on the poor? The solution rests with us.
Show Less
LibraryThing member write-review
We Are Better Than This, Yes?

In the past few years, books have appeared about America’s working poor and just plain poor, not to mention America’s drift to the right and our current populist phenomenon, some better than others. Kristof and WuDunn’s book is among the best on these topics for a
Show More
couple of reasons.

The authors offer personal stories of Nicholas’ boyhood friends, boys and girls with whom he rode the bus to school and played with. These are real people who once had futures, who the author knew as nice people, some brighter than others, people like you probably grew up with, if you lived in a small town, or in the middle class part of town, if you came from a working class family. In other words, these are ordinary Americans, and they ran into a buzzsaw by virtue of birth, or job loss, or illness and lack of medical care, or bad care, and a myriad of others problems. They might look like deadbeats to some, people who made their problems; in reality, they are like us, you, me, the Kristofs, and bad decisions and an equal dose of circumstances crushed them.

Then the authors use these stories of what happened to these people, many of whom are either now dead or destitute, to explain what’s happening in America’s communities, how dysfunctional family lives, drugs, violence, excess incarceration levels, job losses, and unwanted pregnancies account not just for the plight in his hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, but of that in small towns and inner cities across America. These authors examine how millions of Americans devolved into the situations devouring them, both through their own means the compounding effect of lack of meaningful, consistent, research-based solutions to the overarching factors affecting them.

What’s more, they explore programs, although small, that are working to turn around lives, and based on this, offer a number of suggestions that could break the current cycle of despair and early dead. That’s where the hope comes in, that there are ways, many proven, that can lift many people up. The challenge, however, and it’s a huge one, is getting Americans to recognize we face a collective problem. This isn’t, as too many of us believe, simply an issue of personal responsibility. The authors acknowledge that personal responsibility plays a role here. However, they argue very effectively, based on research and in dollars and lives to be saved, that there’s a collective, national responsibility, too. If we would heed even a bit of what they have to say, if our leaders, both in government and business, would listen, if we could embrace the idea of shared responsibility, then we as individuals and as a country would ultimately be better off. It boils down to: are we better than this, better than the way we now are ignoring the issue of poverty in America, or blaming it solely on the poor? The solution rests with us.
Show Less
LibraryThing member steve02476
Heartbreaking and maddening and inspiring. The authors do a fine job of showing the difficult lives of a somewhat random subset of Americans facing very rough lives, caused by both their own frailties and by issues way outside their own control. All of the people are depicted in a very personal
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way, but especially the many people that Kristof grew up with and went to school with who didn’t survive the awful things that happened to them and well as the awful mistakes they themselves made. It’s easy to say “it’s society’s fault” and it’s easy to say “it’s poor people’s own faults” but the authors show what a tangled mess it really is, and how some social changes could really help (imperfect) people do much better, and thus be able to contribute back.
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Awards

Audie Award (Finalist — Non-Fiction — 2021)

Language

Original language

English

Original publication date

2020

Physical description

320 p.; 7.97 inches

ISBN

0525564179 / 9780525564171
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