Tightrope - Book Review - The New York Times

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Tightrope - Book Review - The New York Times

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https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/10/book ... Position=7

Chronicling a Community, and a Country, in Economic Crisis

By Sarah Smarsh - Published Jan. 10, 2020 - Updated Jan. 16, 2020

[Sarah Smarsh is the author of “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,” a finalist for the National Book Award.]

As the United States awakens from one of its foundational myths — that we are a democracy without castes — the official record of our times is being written largely by people born to socioeconomic advantage. This irony, in which those on the fortunate end of historic wealth inequality attempt to chronicle a populist movement produced by that inequality, often results in dubious journalism.

Even well-intentioned urban, coastal, college-educated scribes commit obliviously condescending word choices (“flyover country”), illogical assumptions (everyone in red states voted for Trump) and variations on poverty porn, in which subjects are conveyed as helpless and joyless (“observe this sorry case in Appalachia”). To those who know something about, say, rural poverty firsthand, earnest nonfiction narratives understandably may read as voyeuristic studies predicated on the dangerous idea that we are a nation of two essentially different kinds of people.

In fact, we are a nation of essentially similar people shaped by vastly different circumstances of place, wealth, education and culture. Those best able to document our socioeconomic divide with humility and accuracy typically have occupied more than one class, remain connected to the one they left and attribute any upward mobility to good fortune rather than to personal exceptionalism.

One such journalist is the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who grew up tending sheep on a small family farm in rural Oregon in the 1960s and ’70s. In “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” he and the journalist Sheryl WuDunn, who is also his wife, offer a litany of stories from across the country, revealing the structural causes of countless so-called personal failures among the working poor. Most of these stories come from Kristof’s hometown of Yamhill, population 1,105.

Yamhill, which thrived with blue-collar industry just a few generations ago, serves as a microcosm for a nation in which life expectancy has alarmingly declined. One in four of Kristof’s former peers died in adulthood from substance-abuse disorders, suicide, accidents or treatable health conditions such as obesity and diabetes. “Tightrope” suggests why: a corrupt and uniquely cruel economy in which millions of underpaid or underemployed Americans cannot afford education, health care or housing. Familiar statistics on these dismal trends take on fresh urgency when juxtaposed with photos of Kristof’s schoolmates who are now homeless or dead.

The authors’ affection for Yamhill is the heartbeat of the book. Kristof remains tied to the strained community through friends and the sheep farm, which is still in the family, and WuDunn has been visiting the area since she and Kristof became engaged decades ago. In this way, “Tightrope” avoids a problem common among books about places authors have “escaped.” Yamhill is not reflected through a rearview mirror, distorted by a removed author’s guilt, resentment or nostalgia. Rather, it is conveyed up close by way of detailed reporting on living people — intimate access achieved because the authors, while outliers with respect to their professional status and home on the opposite coast, are also of the place.

Together, their first-person “we” has the refreshing effect of fogging the authorial “I” and keeping the spotlight on those they’ve interviewed or memorialized — a popular cheerleader and athlete who in middle age froze to death while homeless; a wounded veteran battling addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder; a woman who survived a homicidal husband only to bury four out of five of her adult children. The individual tales in “Tightrope” cut across race, ethnicity and geography but share a theme of economic misfortune in a nation plenty rich enough to help if it cared to.

These stories are so numerous, in chapters addressing the destruction of unions, the war on drugs, insufficient health coverage, unaffordable housing and other failures of public policy, that we rarely get to know one person deeply. But their number conveys the breadth of financial struggle, the exploration of which took the authors to all 50 states.

Kristof and WuDunn have written four other books together, and in 1990 became the first married couple to receive a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, for their reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. (WuDunn was also the first Asian-American woman to win that prize.) Their partnership itself crosses cultural borders; WuDunn grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and is now an investment adviser at a New York securities firm. “Tightrope”’s analysis of our country’s class problem reads as lived understanding.

The authors reveal their liberal stances but also validate sacrosanct conservative ideas about work ethic and individual responsibility. The book’s resulting fixation on substance abuse among the working poor might turn off progressive readers who would note that wealthier people are seldom put under a microscope for the same self-destructive behaviors. However, Kristof and WuDunn show over and over how “bad choices” are rooted in problems bigger than the individual: childhood abuse, lack of knowledge, dearth of resources.

Kristof and WuDunn quote past and current leaders from both political parties who agree that capitalism is broken. Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats alike might find themselves surprised to learn from “Tightrope” that “the needy” are their intellectual and moral equals, or that the only real difference between them and the rural poor is the opportunities they received.

Common objections to such empathy, at least toward the white people in “Tightrope” who identify as politically conservative, include “Why do they vote against their best interest?” and “Why did they vote for Trump?”

The presumed answer is often some racism or sexism unique to poor or working-class whites — even though 45 percent of college-educated white women voted for Trump, even though support for Trump was roughly the same across income brackets.

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 undercurrent of self-hatred, in which people blame themselves for bad outcomes and are loath to ask for a “handout.” “One hazard of our social Darwinism,” the authors write, “is that it is absorbed even by those who are themselves on the bottom, leading them to stigmatize themselves.”

Kristof and WuDunn acknowledge the bravery required of their sources to share painful realities in a society that has shamed them. In one scene, as a 30-year-old contractor is having 18 teeth pulled at a free dental clinic in Virginia, the young dentist laments the man’s case. The authors describe the man’s anxious look, “sitting in the chair as he was being talked about.”

Careful not to portray their subjects as one-dimensionally miserable, Kristof and WuDunn document the tireless and heroic ways in which the people they interviewed tried, often with greater gumption than many fortunate people will ever be asked to summon. In Tulsa, Okla., a woman recalls trying to enroll herself in ninth grade after taking the necessary school forms to the prison where her mother was incarcerated on drug charges, in order to procure her signature. Kristof’s rival for class valedictorian, the daughter of a county truck driver, found her studies derailed by teen pregnancy; she didn’t go to college but she didn’t turn to drugs, either, and through hard work with her husband has kept the family afloat.

The authors praise the particular strengths of one of Kristof’s lifelong friends, who faced job loss, methamphetamine addiction, a criminal record and obesity-related diabetes: When young Kristof “drove the tractor through the sheep shed wall (the second time), it was Clayton who helped fix the shed. Or there was the time Clayton managed to kill hundreds of yellow jackets and destroy their nest after Nick had fled in defeat.”

People like Clayton exist in other wealthy nations, but statistically — thanks to greater social safety nets elsewhere — none fares so poorly as Clayton in the United States. “Tightrope” thus concludes that America’s true exceptionalism is our lack of concern for one another. To rectify such a crisis, the authors argue, we cannot rely on charity; only robust public policy will suffice. They suggest that such policies should prioritize early childhood programs, high school graduation, universal health coverage, access to contraceptives, housing, jobs and government-issued savings bonds and monthly allowances for all children. To those who say we can’t afford it, they observe, “Everybody knows about the cost of food stamps for the poor, but few people are aware that the median taxpayer is also subsidizing the corporate executives whose elegant French dinner is tax deductible.”

“Tightrope”’s greatest strength is its exaltation of the common person’s voice, bearing expert witness to troubles that selfish power has wrought. But Kristof and WuDunn interviewed official experts, too, who are catching on to what marginalized people have known all along.

“The American people think this system is completely rigged,” Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate for campaign finance and government ethics reform, tells them. “And they’re correct.”

A version of this article appears in print on Jan. 12, 2020, Page 1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Hard Times.

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