Hope And Crisis On The 'Tightrope' Of Working-Class America

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(John Minchillo/AP)
(John Minchillo/AP)

For resources from "Tightrope": Provoking Hope, visit its website here.
More resources: TOPPS, helping underprivileged kids and youth in Arkansas, and Women in Recovery, helping women with addiction in Oklahoma.

One-quarter of Nick Kristof’s high school class died prematurely. The New York Times columnist went back to his hometown to find out why.


Sheryl WuDunn, business executive and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. (@WuDunn)

Nick Kristof, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times. (@NickKristof)

Their new book is "Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope." In 1990, WuDunn and Kristof became the first married couple to receive a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, for their reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre.

Diane Reynolds, ordained pastor and founder of the nonprofit Provoking Hope. She has lived in Yamhill County since 1977, near Nick Kristof’s hometown.

From The Reading List

Excerpt from "Tightrope" by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

The New York Times: "Chronicling a Community, and a Country, in Economic Crisis" — "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."

"Tightrope" by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
"Tightrope" by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Houston Chronicle: "‘Tightrope’ finds Americans on a perilous walk" — "'Tightrope' — a new book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn — opens with a story involving domestic abuse and gunfire. The authors set a scene in 1973 at the Knapp household in Yamhill, a rural town about halfway between Portland and the Oregon coast. From there, they track the fates of Dee and Gary Knapp and their five children. 'Tightrope' would be a short book if things turned out well for the Knapps. But like so many of the other kids that rode the No. 6 school bus with Kristof, they struggled enormously.

"'Dead, dead, dead, dead,' the authors write. A fifth Knapp child has been imprisoned, addicted and suffers from HIV and hepatitis. A quarter of the kids on that bus are gone, a devastating figure that prompted Kristof and WuDunn — the first married couple to win a Pulitzer Prize — to look at what happened in Yamhill. The result is 'Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,' their new book that uses Yamhill as a point of entry to probe difficult times in both rural and urban areas across the States. Joblessness, depression and addiction are just three attributes that tie together different stories of struggle.

"'We were attuned to these issues because of our regular visits back to Yamhill and seeing the distress in this community that I love very much,' says Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times. 'It’s an area that has gone through so much upheaval. But we also wanted it to be bigger than that one town. We recognized this is not just a problem in rural white America. It’s in Appalachia, inner cities, farming communities.' "

This program aired on January 14, 2020.

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