Chronicling a Community, and a Country, in Economic Crisis

Kristof and WuDunn acknowledge the bravery required of their sources to share painful realities in a society that has shamed them. In one scene, as a 30-year-old contractor is having 18 teeth pulled at a free dental clinic in Virginia, the young dentist laments the man’s case. The authors describe the man’s anxious look, “sitting in the chair as he was being talked about.”

Careful not to portray their subjects as one-dimensionally miserable, Kristof and WuDunn document the tireless and heroic ways in which the people they interviewed tried, often with greater gumption than many fortunate people will ever be asked to summon. In Tulsa, Okla., a woman recalls trying to enroll herself in ninth grade after taking the necessary school forms to the prison where her mother was incarcerated on drug charges, in order to procure her signature. Kristof’s rival for class valedictorian, the daughter of a county truck driver, found her studies derailed by teen pregnancy; she didn’t go to college but she didn’t turn to drugs, either, and through hard work with her husband has kept the family afloat.

The authors praise the particular strengths of one of Kristof’s lifelong friends, who faced job loss, methamphetamine addiction, a criminal record and obesity-related diabetes: When young Kristof “drove the tractor through the sheep shed wall (the second time), it was Clayton who helped fix the shed. Or there was the time Clayton managed to kill hundreds of yellow jackets and destroy their nest after Nick had fled in defeat.”

People like Clayton exist in other wealthy nations, but statistically — thanks to greater social safety nets elsewhere — none fairs so poorly as Clayton in the United States. “Tightrope” thus concludes that America’s true exceptionalism is our lack of concern for one another. To rectify such a crisis, the authors argue, we cannot rely on charity; only robust public policy will suffice. They suggest that such policies should prioritize early childhood programs, high school graduation, universal health coverage, access to contraceptives, housing, jobs and government-issued savings bonds and monthly allowances for all children. To those who say we can’t afford it, they observe, “Everybody knows about the cost of food stamps for the poor, but few people are aware that the median taxpayer is also subsidizing the corporate executives whose elegant French dinner is tax deductible.”

“Tightrope”’s greatest strength is its exaltation of the common person’s voice, bearing expert witness to troubles that selfish power has wrought. But Kristof and WuDunn interviewed official experts, too, who are catching on to what marginalized people have known all along.

“The American people think this system is completely rigged,” Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate for campaign finance and government ethics reform, tells them. “And they’re correct.”

The article was originally published by Newyorktimes

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