This post was originally produced for Forbes.
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Pulitzer Prize Winners Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn have written a new book, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, to be released next month. The book will follow the model of the couple’s previous collaborations, Half the Sky and A Path Appears, painful analyses of big social problems that also celebrate the hope found in existing solutions.
Without the benefit of a review copy, I recorded a discussion of the book and some of his other writing with Kristof several months ago. I invite you to watch the interview in the player above. Kristof’s thoughtful manner of speaking reflects a mind practiced in editing his prose as he goes, sometimes causing him to pause mid-sentence only to finish the thought by starting or finishing a new sentence, leaving the last incomplete.
It’s a style that has garnered the New York Times columnist millions of social media followers to whom he has often appeared in self-produced videos like mine (the key difference being the size of our respective audiences). His millions of fans and followers feel an authentic connection to the self-described “farm boy” from Oregon, despite more than because of his Harvard and Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar) education and 30+ years at the Times.
Nicholas Kristof CREDIT: EARL WILSON
Kristof partners with WuDunn, his wife of three decades with whom he has three children, to write books. They won a Pulitzer for their coverage of the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 while they both worked at the Times. WuDunn now works in banking.
For Tightrope, which he describes as “deeply personal,” Kristof begins with his own beginning, returning to his rural hometown of Yamhill, Oregon. He focuses on the kids who were on his old school bus. “And about a quarter of those kids have passed away largely from what economists call a death of despair, drugs, alcohol, suicide and also reckless accidents.”
“Most of America has looked the other way as working families have collapsed into a miasma of lost jobs, drugs and shortening life expectancy,” he told me.
“One of the stories we tell is of some neighbors who lived not far from us,” he says beginning his narrative. “There’s a family of five kids. The oldest was in my grade. Really, I mean, everybody was very smart. And they had risen very, very quickly. I mean, the 20th century had been enormously good to them. The dad had a good labor union job. And then then everything kind of collapsed and the jobs went away. The kids all ended up dropping out of school and they self-medicated with that with alcohol, with other drugs.”
“And then then they became less employable, less marriageable. The family structure, which had been really strong in my community, just collapsed very, very quickly. The social fabric, it became undone,” he said, speaking of his hometown. “And so now of those five kids, four of the five are now dead. And the only one who survived survived because he spent 13 years in the Oregon State Penitentiary on drug offenses.”
“These are these are smart kids who could have contributed so much to the country, to a community, and instead they, you know…,” his voice trails off thinking of what might have been and finally notes, “we didn’t intervene.”
The fact that it is easier to help a three-year-old get on the successful path than to help a 30-year-old turn around, is a key lesson he takes from his research and observations about the Yamhill community.
Revealing his penchant for earthbound wisdom, he says, “Look, there is no silver bullet to address these kinds of problems. But there are there are silver buckshot.”
In the U.S., the government provides $30 billion in housing vouchers each year. Often, the recipients congregate in poor areas of the community, sometimes moving from one poor area to another, he notes. This aggregation tends to magnify the problem.
Economist Raj Chetty, has found that if a family uses the voucher to move to a community with higher opportunity, better schools and a stronger family structure, the kids are much more likely to graduate from high school and the girls are less likely to get pregnant as teenagers. They’ll also earn more money and pay more taxes as a result of a relatively small nudge to move to a better neighborhood.
“I wish that some of my neighbors could have had that kind of help back when they were at a tipping point,” he said.
“One in seven kids in America still doesn’t graduate from high school. And those kids are cooked. They’re just cooked,” Kristof says in frustration.
“It is it is really easy for successful people to ignore those who’ve been left behind,” he says, noting that our communities are segregated not only by race but by class and education as well. “We can tune out those who have been left behind.”
“I want to make it harder for that to happen and remind people that there is just a lot of desperate need out there,” he adds.
“We I tend to think of education as one of the best predictors of long-term outcomes for countries. The U.S., we pioneered mass education in this country. We pioneered high school—mass high schools. We pioneered mass tertiary education. And as recently as the 1960s, we were number one in high school attendance,” he says, preparing to make a point. “Now we rank number 61. And that doesn’t just hold that hold back those high school dropouts. It holds back our country.”
On Drug Abuse:
Kristof says that drug treatment is only a part of the solution to the crisis in our country. It also isn’t enough to stop drug companies from encouraging physicians to prescribe more opioids. “But it also has to be about giving people who are at the margins more of a sense that they have a future, that they don’t need to numb that pain.”
For Tightrope, Kristof says, they looked at autoworkers who had been laid off in both Detroit and directly across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Globalization and technology are likely to continue eroding manufacturing jobs in both countries.
“But those on the Canadian side were much more likely to get retraining so that they could move into new jobs. And so, an autoworker could become an ultrasound operator. And the upshot was that if you were a Canadian auto worker, you know, you were less likely to turn to drugs. Your kids were less likely to turn to drugs. And today, you know, your grandchild is less likely to be born dependent on opioids.”
In our interview, we talked about a variety of issues I haven’t tallied here, from Kristof’s criticisms of liberals to the lessons he’s learned about the ineffectiveness of the death penalty. Be sure to watch the full interview to the end where he shares his superpower.
By way of confession, I have long seen Kristof as a role model. After 1,200 episodes of my show, I invited him to be my last guest. I am grateful he had a book to promote, which likely gave him the nudge he needed to accept the invitation.
Kristof reflects on his life since leaving Yamhill, noting the aphorism, “talent is universal, but opportunity is not,” suggesting he had no more potential than the kids he rode the bus with to school. “I went to this small rural school and I just I just hit the jackpot.”
“I had parents who read to me who I was surrounded by books. I applied to Harvard. And there was somebody on the admissions committee who was from rural Oregon and loved the idea of a farm boy and our in our class. And so I was admitted. I, you know, four years later, I was lucky enough to win a Rhodes scholarship, which opened all kinds of doors, gave me more of an education, led me to The New York Times. There were editors at The Times who took chances on me. And so I ended up having this string of doors opened up magically for me as I approached,” he says seemingly a bit befuddled by his luck.
“I mean, absolutely, I think I worked incredibly hard. And I think I had, you know, some genuine talent to bring to the table. But there are so many others, you know, in my high school who had talent. And I know that if I had been in somewhat different circumstance, like some of these families, then instead of being in this interview, I would be struggling with my meth addiction or whatever else.”
This recognition of his good fortune, he says, motivates his work.
“Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.”
For social entrepreneurs and others working to change the world, Tightrope is required reading.
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