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Brands’ Biggest Threat: America’s Working Class Walks the Tightrope

In their latest book, Tightrope–Americans Reaching for Hope, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn sound off the alarm on rural America’s disappearing working-class. The “miasma” of unemployment, failed government policies and the disappearing American dream is “slowly killing” rural America’s working class with widespread addiction, imprisonment, suicide, and early deaths.

The journey begins at Yamhill, Oregon, where we meet the ghosts of Kristoff’s childhood friends who rode with him on the Number 6 school bus. We soon find out one-fourth of the friends are “gone.” They are the faces of America’s “deaths of despair”.

Disappearing Working Class

The Pulitzer Prize winning couple discuss the urgent need for early childhood education, intervention, drug treatments, and job programs to help those falling off the tightrope. Intertwined in the stark national statistics on unemployment, poverty, drug addiction, overdose, and suicide rates are real-life stories of friends. They introduce the casualties in black and white photos.

We learn how loss of jobs robbed them of self-worth, dignity, and healthcare access. And how our judicial system punished, rather than elevated, those falling off the tightrope.

Like Mike Stepp, now homeless, posing in a photo with his old friend, Kristof.

Some 150 million Americans walk the tightrope. There are 100,000 homeless children. One – in-eight children in America lives with a parent suffering from “substance use disorder.”

Every seven minutes one American dies of an overdose. The “invisible” poor are at constant risk of “tumbling out of security and comfort.” America ranks 27 out of 35 OECD countries in life expectancy – behind Chile. Twice a day in America there’s a pregnancy-related death.

Drug Dealers in Lab Coats

Chapter six begins with a quote by Dr. Raymond Sackler boasting how Oxycotin is their “ticket to the moon.” Rudy Giuliani “vigorously defended” Purdue Pharma. The medical staff sold “their souls….remarkably cheaply” helping Big Pharma rake in billions of dollars in profits. Mass incarceration for possession of drugs overpopulates our prisons, yet no member of the Sackler family member–worth $13 billion–is in prison.

The authors compare the pharmaceutical industry to “Colombian drug lords, with legal approval.” They helped cause over 70,000 deaths from drug overdoses in 2017, according to CDC reports. Among the dead from opioid overdoses are Kristof’s friends on bus #6, like the Knapp family.

We meet Dee Knapp, who lost four of her five children to opioid related deaths. The disappearance of “good union jobs” followed by the “explosion of drugs” created unsolvable problems of addiction. Mass incarceration for drug-related offenses breaks up American families and transmits the problem to the next generation. The failing promises of capitalism is driving 51% of Americans between ages 18 to 29 to favor socialism.

The suffering of America’s working-class was not inevitable. The authors confirm it “reflects decades of social-policy mistakes and often gratuitous cruelty.” From the war on drugs leading to mass incarceration to the “indifference to the loss of blue-collar jobs,” to insufficient healthcare coverage. The “highly unequal education system, tax giveaways to tycoons, zillionaire-friendly court decisions, acceptance of growing inequality,” – the list goes on.

Equally alarming is the “systematic under-investment in children and community services such as drug treatment.”

The Formidable Power of Empathy

Pointing fingers at the poor’s “moral failings” reflects how our “social narrative lacks empathy.” Kristof mentions how investment in human capital, like the Homestead Act, enriched America and restored the social narrative.

The authors offer an inspiring profile of Mary Daly from a small town near St. Louis. She dropped out of school at 15 after her dad lost his job and her parents divorced. Her school guidance counselor talked to a local college teacher who urged Mary to earn her GED. After passing her GED, she attended the University of Missouri and earned her master’s and Ph.D. and became a research economist in the Federal Reserve System. Mentored by Janet Yellen, she focused on inequality and became the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Mary is paying forward with a scholarship honoring her guidance counselor to ensure other “little diamonds” don’t go unnoticed.

Kristof and WuDunn discuss their own modest starts and families that prioritized education. Kristof grew up on a farm in Yamhill, Oregon, with parents who were both professors.  His father is of Polish and Armenian heritage. WuDunn’s Chinese immigrant grandparents restarted life in America as Chinese restaurant owners facing the Chinese Exclusion Act and pervasive racial discrimination. The authors’ Ivy League education landed them jobs at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. They haven’t forgotten their modest starts.

Intervention Programs Save Lives

With gains not broadly shared in America, intervention programs across America help drastically reverse lives that would otherwise spiral down.  The authors are hopeful “grit will triumph over vulnerability.” They profile projects like Baltimore’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), The Women in Recovery, and the Remote Area Medical program, and urge support for these preventive projects.

Yet, they admit volunteers can’t build everything. Just like “interstate highway systems” were not built by volunteers.

Asked if they have advised policy makers across America, Kristoff reveals that the presidential candidates have expressed interest in the book and that they have held discussions with governors.

During the book presentation, WuDunn urged readers to build on common ground. Everyone should agree on “Medicaid expansion, early childhood education–because everyone wants education for their kids,” she said.

And for those who don’t know how to become more active in their communities, the authors provide a list of 10 ways to make a difference.

Kristof and WuDunn pay tribute to those who “bared their souls” to make possible the “heartrending journey to report and write this book.” They end with a hopeful note that we, as a nation, can “shore up the American dream” to help children across America achieve their dreams so our land can become, in Woody Guthrie’s vision, “a land made for you and me.”