Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope

              “You wrote about my life,” I say when Nicholas Kristoff and his wife Sheryl WuDunn call me from their hotel room on a stop of their multi-city tour promoting their new book Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.

              I tell them about growing up in East Chicago. Sure, it was always a blue collar town but when I was young both East Chicago and, across the Columbus Avenue bridge, Indiana Harbor where I grew up, had a vital economy, two separate but thriving downtowns and work for all those graduating from the two high schools, Roosevelt and Washington.

              My mother worked at the East Chicago Public Library for 50 years and in the 1960s bought clothes at Broadway Dress Shoppe with its sleek curved window exterior. Albert’s Jewelers had a store on Main Street, and I remember my dad saying they held on as long as they could as Indiana Harbor continued to lose population and other stores closed as the manufacturing slowed down before moving. My friends and I perused the racks at the Mademoiselle Shop on Main Street, wondering if we could talk our parents into buying the latest Bobby Brooks sweater and skirt set. We bought Nancy Drew books, dress patterns and sodas at one of the two dime stores just down the street.

For children’s clothes there was Jack and Jill’s owned by my friend’s family. After he retired, my father would walk from our home by St. Catherine’s Hospital to the Olympia, the ultimate busy Greek diner or as a family we’d eat at the Trolley Diner.  I’d buy freshly made bread on my way home from school at the bakery; my Romanian grandmother would get freshly butchered chicken at a meat story further south on Main always asking that the head remain on so she could make sure it really was fresh. Both the A&P and Kroger’s in Indiana Harbor gave out stamps that you’d paste in books and exchange, when you had enough for items in a catalogue.

Both downtowns were vital and busy, there were no empty store fronts. I told Kristoff and WuDunn, the only husband and wife journalist team to win a Pulitzer Prize. about how kids would graduate from high school and go straight into the mills, even those who in other cities would have gone to college. The starting pay was at least four times more than minimum wage at the time. It was hard work, sometimes dirty and dangerous but my friends whose parents worked in the mills had good solid middle class lives with the added values of health insurance and pensions and saved money because they wanted their kids to go to college. When there was a strike—particularly one that lasted for weeks and weeks—there was a feeling of unease and sadness and even fear. The annual fair held at the Katherine House where I went to day care was canceled. My friends’ families couldn’t afford to get candy and comic books after school like we used to. But then the strike was settled, and the world righted itself until it finally didn’t.

              I wasn’t the first person to tell Kristoff and WuDunn about such a loss—because seeing your hometown hollowed out, losing population and good paying manufacturing jobs, echoes through you–it’s a sadness because I loved growing up there.

“Sheryl and I are so struck with stories like yours,” Kristoff tells me, noting that he’s familiar with what happened to the steel mill cities of Northwest Indiana and even their current commitments to rebuild/reimagine their identities. “wherever we are, whenever we talk about the book, people come up to us and say I grew up in a tiny town in Tennessee, Ohio or West Virginia, anywhere and say this happened to me.”

Tightrope tells the tale of an America that is still in the process of losing well-paying jobs, where people work two or more jobs just to make ends meet, where one illness can turn into a bankruptcy for those who are uninsured or underinsured and where opioids and other drugs lead to incarceration, early death and family destruction.

Like me, like most of us, Kristoff has seen it firsthand as well and he propels the book from that point of view. He grew up in Yamhill, Oregon on a sheep and cherry farm and traces what happened to the kids who rode with him on the Number 6 bus to Yamhill Grade School and then Yamhill Carlton High School. Kristoff went on to graduate from Harvard and as a Rhodes Scholar, studied law Magdalen College, Oxford. He’s a New York Times columnist, won two Pulitzer Prizes, is a frequent CNN contributor and is the author of several books.

Life wasn’t as good for many of his bus mates. About one-fourth are dead from drug overdoses, suicide from depression and despair, alcohol, obesity, reckless accidents and from what WuDunn and Kristoff call “pathologies.”  Of the five Knapp children who lived next door to the Kristoff family and rode Number 6, four are dead and the fifth most likely survived because he spent 13 years in the Oregon State Penitentiary.

“We wrote this book to help change the narrative and to put human faces on issues,” says Kristoff. “Our hope is by using the narrative of the old school bus we can help generate a conversation that would lead to change. It’s deeply painful to see this happen to a community which Sheryl and I loved, where those I grew up with were opportunistic about the future when we were young. Now people are dying unnecessary.”

Each time Kristoff returned home he’d hear more horror stories. He was, he realized, watching the lives of his classmates implode and along with them, the lives of their children.  

“We have so many young children now growing up in toxic environment,” he says.

              “That’s why the situation is so critical,” says  WuDunn, who also worked at the New York Times and is now a senior banker specializing  in growth companies in technology, new media and the emerging markets. “It’s like compound interest rates on steroids –kids getting taken away by the state, trying to place them in stable foster homes, their progeny going through the same cycle.”

              But WuDunn and Kristoff aren’t just about detailing the destruction and despair, they’re all about solutions as well.

“Remarkably, even during the Great Depression life expectancy didn’t fall the way it is now,” says WuDunn.  “For the last three years in a row, life expectancy has decreased in the U.S. unlike other first world countries. That’s because during the depression they had a process and plans for getting back on track.”

It’s not only about the outsourcing of jobs to other countries where labor is cheaper and environmental rules lax, it’s about how America’s politicians react—or don’t– to it.

“Globalization is global, and it affects all countries, particularly our peer countries in Europe but they’re not exhibiting the same challenges that we are, to the degree that we are experiencing them,” says WuDunn. “We’re absolutely capable of changing. There’s evidence based research showing the solution of these issues. Great Britain decided to do something about children living in poverty and were able to reduce it by 50%. Portugal is the best example of dealing with drug use, they don’t jail drug users, they place them in rehab.”

Indeed, statistics indicate that a dollar invested in addiction treatment saves about $12 in reduced crime, court costs and health care savings.

“We’ve been paralyzed by this idea that nothing works,” says Kristoff. “The narrative is we waged the war on poverty and poverty won, this obsession with personal responsibility and that poverty is a choice, these false narratives are powering what’s going on in this country.”   

America is crippling itself by not taking care of its own, by spending more money on incarceration that rehabilitation, by short funding schools and by a tax system that benefits the rich and takes away from the poor.

WuDunn worries about how we can maintain our primacy in the world when so many of our families are failing.

“Change will only work if everyone says we need to advocate for this,” she says. “One man came up to me and said it’s really important to invest in human capital. We need to do that if we want to be able to compete against China and India. Taking care of Americans is an investment in all of America.”

Kristoff sums it up succinctly.

“There’s real desperation out there,” he says.

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