For most of their journalistic lives, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have written about stories and shades of the world which many Americans never see for themselves.
Beginning with their series of reports on the Chinese government crackdown on democracy in the early 1990s — for which they won the Pulitzer Prize — through their latest book project, the husband-and-wife team have traveled the world several times over.
Their goal is to elucidate the stories of human struggle and human potential. And, since the old adage advises to "write what you know," their sixth book project is a return to Kristof’s home.
In "Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope," the couple places the economic and social strife of Kristof’s hometown, Yamhill, Ore., into the larger context of failed economic and social policies that have slowly ravaged the United States for the past 50 years.
"We gradually saw there was a humanitarian crisis unfolding in my little town — and in particular, close to the kids who were on my old school bus, Bus No. 6," recounts Kristof.
“About a quarter of the kids on the No. 6 Bus have died from drugs, alcohol and suicide,” he says. “And we gradually realized that this was part of something larger, a nationwide collapse of working class America tied to critical depths of despair."
According to their reporting, 70,000 Americans die annually from drug use, another 88,000 from alcohol abuse and 47,000 from suicide. In fact, suicide rates are at a 30-year high. Moreover, 1 in 7 Americans live in poverty.
"Life expectancy has been dropping,” says WuDunn, “and that's a staggering figure in the context of other OECD and peer countries where their mortality rates are dropping and their life expectancy is rising.”
(The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, is the intergovernmental body that tracks metrics of growth and well-being across 36 member nations.)
To research their new book, the couple crisscrossed all 50 states, including major stops in Yamhill and Baltimore among others.
Baltimore is a city blighted still by the failed war on drugs that began in the 1970s. In 2017, the overdose rate in Baltimore reached 85.2 per 100,000, the equivalent of 0.1 percent of the city’s population dying in one year.
WuDunn and Kristof aren’t just reporting on the problems. They lay out 10 different policy prescriptions to remedy decades of social and economic depression.
"If I were to boil them down to three,” Kristof says, “they would be early childhood education, drug treatment and an emphasis on jobs."
"I think that capitalism is in crisis here and needs to be fundamentally tinkered with," he continues. "If I can use the fact that I was on that bus, and that I am still close to so many who were and tell those stories in a way that evokes a little more understanding among people who do have their hands on the levers of power, then we hope that one consequence can be a little more empathy, a little more compassion, and little bit more wisdom in how people in Washington and New York and other cities around the country devise policy."
In addition to their book, Kristof and WuDunn have produced a documentary on the subject, in collaboration with Show of Force Productions.