By Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Portland is living high on the hog. Dozens of construction cranes soar over the city and employers struggle to fill job openings amid the strongest economy in decades.
But prosperity hasn't traveled 40 miles west. In Yamhill, a picturesque farm town that numbered 1,024 in the last census, many residents are struggling to put food on the table, keep out of jail, and just stay alive.
In their new book, Tightrope (Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages, $27.95), the husband-and-wife team of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn examine how, over the past 50 years, America has failed its working-class citizens.
Our public education system is subpar. Many Western countries produce better health outcomes far more cheaply. And we lock up our citizens at a far higher rate than any other democracy. Decades of neglect and Darwinian social policy have badly damaged our social safety net.
Prior to a slight correction last year, Americans' life expectancy declined three years in a row, led by "deaths of despair," such as overdose and suicide.
A while back, Oregon came up with a new marketing slogan: "Things look different here."
Turns out they don't.
Kristof and WuDunn center their reporting on the Kristof family farm in Yamhill, where he grew up. Kristof left the farm decades ago for Harvard and a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. In 35 years at The New York Times, he reported from all over the world on civil rights and government abuses, earning two Pulitzer Prizes and numerous other awards. He chronicled genocide in the Sudan and the economic rise of China—as well as the country's dismal record on human rights.
He and WuDunn, who worked at the Times for 17 years and was the first Asian American reporter to win a Pulitzer Prize, have written four previous books together. Those books are set in exotic locales, but they've always visited Oregon regularly, and stayed in touch with the kids who rode the No. 6 school bus with Kristof.
While Kristof and WuDunn traveled the globe interviewing heads of state and chronicling wars, famines and other man-made disasters, many of the kids Kristof rode the No. 6 bus with ended up addicted, imprisoned or dead on the fringes of the Willamette Valley. Tightrope weaves together their stories with alarming data, sobering interviews with experts, and a clear-eyed explanation of what's gone wrong.
"American kids today are 55 percent more likely to die by the age of 19 than children in the other rich countries," Kristof and WuDunn write. "America now lags behind its peer countries in health care and high school graduation rates while suffering greater violence, poverty and addiction."
The 1 percent are thriving, of course, but income inequality remains at historic levels. Kristof and WuDunn turn their attention to those Americans prosperity—in the country's high-tech and service economy sectors—has left behind. Unlike previous generations, Americans today are worse off than the generation that came before them.
In the following pages, WW excerpts the story of one of Kristof's friends—Clayton Green—whose mechanical brilliance didn't grant him the ticket out of Yamhill that Kristof earned. We asked the authors how Oregon fits into the nation's decline, and what can be done to reverse it. They remain optimistic, having found examples, in Yamhill County and across the country, of people and programs working successfully to weave the nation's social safety net back together.
"We prefer to think of the troubles for the American working class in the last forty years as the exception rather than the new normal," the authors write. "It is less about individual irresponsibility and more about our collective irresponsibility." NIGEL JAQUISS.
Excerpted from Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope. Copyright © 2020 by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
In Tightrope, Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn describe the fate of his childhood friends in Yamhill. His parents were professors who valued education and held recession-proof jobs. Many of the kids he grew up with had neither strong role models at home nor the tools to become successful—or even stay alive—in a world buffeted by globalization and the transformation of the American economy from its industrial past to its high-tech present.
Kristof's family continued to live in Yamhill long after he went away to college. Two of his childhood friends, brothers Kevin and Clayton Green, stayed behind. They'd grown up the sons of a union cement worker who owned his own house. Both brothers struggled with chronic unemployment, substance abuse and obesity, and spent time in prison. Kevin died in 2015. Clayton stayed close to the Kristof family until his death last year.
While once a model of a close-knit farm town, Yamhill now finds its social fabric frayed. Today the town still has four churches and a volunteer fire department, but the other institutions are gone, and the old social glue has dried up remarkably quickly.
Previous generations in Yamhill and elsewhere in working-class America found sustenance and support in churches or social organizations, even in bowling clubs. Yamhill used to have a Masonic Lodge, an Odd Fellows secret society, a women's association, a Veterans of Foreign Wars post and a good-size band, as well as the weekly Carlton-Yamhill Review reporting on social interactions such as, say, Mrs. Withycombe calling on Mrs. Laughlin. There's quite good evidence that this kind of social cohesion is good for us. One famous study of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a tight-knit Italian-American community, found that close social bonds resulted in a lack of stress and enormous reduction in heart disease. The people in Roseto smoked, drank and ate fatty sausages, but they didn't have heart attacks, and this protective influence of a close-knit community on mortality is called the Roseto Effect.
Clayton Green [born in 1961] was typical of his generation: he wasn't active in a church or another community organization. Those social networks and local institutions had frayed, so while Clayton had friends, he didn't really belong anywhere, and he didn't have a social role that gave him fulfillment and meaning.
Tom Green [Clayton's father] died in 1996 of heart troubles, at the age of sixty-three, and his son Kevin became the man of the house. But he wasn't the man he aspired to be.
"My boys all wanted to be like their dad," recalled Irene Green. "And they didn't feel like they were making the grade."
There were jobs around, but employers wanted people with a full high-school diploma and no criminal record. They certainly didn't want undereducated, overweight men with drug felony convictions, and when jobs turned up they were discouragingly poorly paid. Kevin couldn't even dream of getting the kind of well-paid blue-collar job that his dad had supported a family on.
After Kevin died, Clayton Green tried to take over and run the farm, but he had many of the same problems as his brother.
Clayton struggled with his weight, couldn't find good jobs and occasionally ended up in jail for drug offenses—all of which made him less employable. Clayton also had a speech impediment that sometimes made him difficult to understand; he had never received speech therapy in school. The impediment sometimes left people thinking that Clayton was dim, but he was very bright, and particularly talented as a mechanic.
Clayton sometimes worked on the Kristof farm, regularly repairing tractors and the Caterpillar bulldozer. When Nick 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.
One of the problems was Clayton's temper and propensity to solve problems with fists rather than words. That reflects a self-destructive element in some working-class cultures—a prickliness about matters of honor, a dependence on fists and a sense that only sissies resort to teachers, police or courts.
When kids grow up with violence and are beaten when they misbehave, they absorb it as a norm. This perceived nobility in fisticuffs perhaps is a modern echo of nineteenth-century dueling, and you see it in the way men boast of their battle scars and the way they raise their sons.
"My dad told me, 'Don't walk away from nothing; don't lose a fight,'" Clayton remembered. He followed that advice.
On the Number 6 school bus, most kids sat wherever they chose (typically high schoolers in the back, grade schoolers in front), but Clayton was enough of a troublemaker that he had an assigned seat near the front. In ninth grade alone, Clayton participated in five fistfights—at which point the school expelled him and his education ended.
A devil-may-care recklessness frequently shadows single men, and that was true of Clayton. Riding too fast on a motorcycle, he lost control and went careering off the road. Another time, Clayton disagreed with a man about who owned a trailer, and the other man solved the problem by hooking it to his truck and driving it away.
"It's not your trailer," Clayton yelled at him, trying to block the truck. In the commotion, the truck and trailer rolled over Clayton and disappeared down the road. Badly injured, Clayton staggered to a neighbor's house to call 911.
At the hospital, it turned out that he had injured his liver and burst a lung, in addition to breaking twenty-eight bones. "I got beat up pretty good," Clayton recalled with a touch of pride.
Always entrepreneurial, Clayton found ways to make money when decent jobs proved elusive. After leaving high school, he grew marijuana for a time, sometimes on distant corners of other people's property so that if found it couldn't easily be traced back to him. Once he was caught only because a farmer fell asleep on a tractor and inadvertently drove into Clayton's marijuana patch.
Later, although he had never taken high-school chemistry, he began to make and sell meth; he and Nick's classmate Farlan Knapp became the local pioneers in cooking meth. Over three years in the early 2000s, Clayton told us, he earned a profit of $125,000 from his meth business (other estimates of his earnings were much higher). His nickname in the drug community was "Candy Man."
Increasingly, Clayton seemed to be following in Kevin's footsteps. He, too, grew a big beard and became so overweight that it was difficult for him to work. He crossed 400 pounds, and doctors told him he was diabetic and had congestive heart failure with fluid rising in his lungs. He tried to get gastric bypass surgery but was told that he needed to improve his health first. We gave him a diet book, but he never managed to lose much weight.
Paul Ryan [the former U.S. speaker of the House] probably would have seen in Clayton a man who refused to lift himself up by his bootstraps. We saw a deeply loyal friend who had never managed to get an education and struggled ever after, often working long hours at difficult physical labor despite many ailments. Once Clayton emerged from the hospital after nearly dying from heart problems and staggered over to the Kristof farm a few days later because he had promised to fix a tractor.
Yes, there were times when he took gasoline from our farm tank without asking, but he would also hand out cash to friends who needed money and show up whenever we needed help. In retrospect, the school had shown irresponsibility in expelling Clayton and in failing to provide speech therapy, and he then responded with his own irresponsibility in cooking meth, but to think that an obese ninth-grade dropout with an outdated blue-collar skill set could lift himself up by his bootstraps is magical thinking.
Like Kevin, Clayton had lost his driver's license for failing to pay child support. But while Kevin was cautious about driving without a license, Clayton was less inhibited. He drove around openly in his black pickup truck. Once he was summoned to the district attorney's office in the county seat, McMinnville, for driving without a license. "You didn't drive here by yourself, did you?" the prosecutor asked.
"No, I wouldn't do that," Clayton replied. "I took my dog with me."
In the book, Clayton Green is emblematic of working Americans left behind in the past five decades as politicians from both major parties made decisions that eroded the social safety net. They allowed the U.S. to fall behind other developed nations in terms of education, health care, job training and other supports, all of which led to "deaths of despair" from substance abuse and suicide that saw U.S. life expectancy fall three years in a row for the first time in a century.
Clayton's health deteriorated further in early 2019, with his heart and lungs failing. He spent most of his time sleeping and had trouble even walking around the house. When he fell inside, it took twelve people and the fire department to get him back on his feet.
This was humiliating for Clayton, and it was difficult to reconcile the obese, sick man of 2019 with the vigorous boy on the Number 6 school bus a few decades earlier. [His mother] Irene was soon caring for Clayton as if he were a child, and this was wrenching for both mother and son.
"Sometimes, I just want to run away from home," Irene told us once.
Clayton was hospitalized periodically, but he hated hospitals and always came home within a few days. During one stay, he was caught with a meth pipe, unable to avoid using even in his hospital room. We spoke to him by phone from New York and tried to be reassuring, urging him to hang in there; he promised he would try.
Soon afterward, Clayton became delirious, speaking to himself and imagining things. He was taken to the McMinnville hospital and died on January 29, 2019, at the age of fifty-seven.
The official cause of death was congestive heart failure, but that medical term misses so much: his expulsion from school in ninth grade, his loss of good jobs as factories closed, his abuse of drugs and cooking meth, his criminal record from drugs, his genius for mechanics, his failed marriage, his loyalty to friends including us, his five grandchildren all taken into care by the state, his loneliness, his desolation.
This was another death of despair, and Clayton was a casualty of America's social great depression.
Oregon's Misery Index
The most eye-catching statistic in Tightrope is that life expectancy in America recently declined three years in a row, the first time that's happened in a century.
New statistics released last week show that decline stopped last year. The positive results came from advances in the fight against chronic diseases, such as cancer, and a slight decrease in overdoses. Suicide—part of the "deaths of despair" the book highlights—continued to trend in the wrong direction.
In Oregon, the picture is mixed. State and local officials acted aggressively to stem the opioid crisis here. But our levels of substance abuse and mental illness are among the nation's highest and our educational attainment among the nation's lowest.
Here are some key indicators of where we stack up nationally. NIGEL JAQUISS.
22: Oregon is the 22nd-healthiest state (down from 8th a decade ago).
3: The percentage of Oregonians with substance abuse disorder is the 3rd-highest in the nation.
1: The prevalance of mental illness in Oregon ranks 1st in the nation.
49: Oregon's graduation rate ranks 49th in the nation.
4: The percentage of adults who've thought seriously of suicide ranks 4th in the nation. We have the 15th-highest rate of suicide.
15: Oregon ranks 15th in alcohol consumption.
39: We have the 39th-highest rate of death from drug overdose.
79.5: Oregon has the 19th-highest life expectancy at 79.5 years.
27: Oregon's rate of incarceration is 27th-highest.
Sources: United Health Foundation, Mental Health America, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Population Institute, Oregon Health Authority, the Sentencing Project
Tightrope is the fifth book Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have written together. The authors, both 60, worked together at The New York Times, are married, and say jointly penning books is a breeze compared to raising three children. They paused in Chicago, during a book tour that will bring them to the Newmark Theatre on Feb. 6, to answer WW's questions in an interview that has been edited for clarity and brevity.
WW: Why'd you write the book?
Nicholas Kristof: We've been traveling around, covering global humanitarian crises, and we came back to Yamhill and we saw a humanitarian crisis unfolding there. It wasn't getting adequate attention. It felt like a good chunk of America was going through a Great Depression, but, in contrast to FDR and the New Deal, this time nothing was being done and not a lot of people were paying attention.
We also wanted to challenge the social narrative behind a lot of harsh policies in the U.S. There's a narrative of obsession with personal responsibility that has led to a lot of Americans being on a tightrope without a safety net. Personal responsibility is real, but we wanted to emphasize there should also be a collective social responsibility, especially to help children.
What did you learn in the course of reporting this book that surprised you?
Sheryl WuDunn: I think what surprised me the most was the degree of suffering and pain. I've been going back to Yamhill for decades and meeting a lot of Nick's friends, but it was only when we started really probing a little bit more that we realized, my goodness, these problems go deeper than it seems on the surface. We went into their homes behind their closed doors and started talking to their family members, their mothers, their brothers and their sons and their daughters, and we just started to see how explosive these challenges are and that they are every bit as tragic as what we've seen in humanitarian crises overseas.
There's an old saying that you can't go home again. True?
Kristof: One of the challenges in writing this book was that we wanted to be pretty blunt about the struggles of the kids on the No. 6 school bus, but we don't want to leave people with the impression that Yamhill is this blighted town in which everybody is cooking meth. Yamhill, in many ways, has done spectacularly well with the arrival of the wine and tourism industry. It truly is a spectacularly thriving and resilient place. America is also thriving and strong and resilient, yet there are a lot of Americans who have been left behind. So, by all means, readers should come visit Yamhill and drink good Yamhill pinots while also understanding that there's a story beyond the vineyards.
Over the 50 years your book covers, U.S. manufacturing jobs have declined by nearly two-thirds. Isn't the decline in our standard of living relative to other countries somewhat inevitable?
WuDunn: Actually, it's not really inevitable. In the 1970s, you could have a great manufacturing job without having graduated from high school. So the problem is that people, the sons and daughters of those manufacturing workers, thought they could do the same—well, unfortunately, you need a high school degree and even some college to get the equivalent type of job.
Germany also had a huge manufacturing base, but they don't have the same situation. So what do they do differently? Looking at what other countries have done is a real good lesson for us, because they have managed to address the problems we in the U.S. just haven't.
You note numerous ways Americans are worse off than countries that have less wealth than we do. Are Americans just different from Canadians and Swedes and the Swiss and Brits in some fundamental way?
Kristof: I don't think the U.S. is fundamentally different. Gun policy shows that. The U.S. was one of the first countries to introduce gun safety legislation with a national firearms act in 1934, and historically, the U.S. was more open to regulating firearms. But I do think the crisis in working-class America may be linked to the passion for firearms we see in the U.S. and not in other places. Some sociologists have argued that when men accustomed to being the head of the household lost status as wages fell, one way of regaining that status was as a protector carrying a weapon.
Who's to blame for the country going off track?
Kristof: This is not just a Trump problem or just a Republican problem. Both parties over 50 years have their fingerprints on policies that were disastrous for a lot of working-class Americans. Mass incarceration is one example. Likewise, during the Great Recession, under a Democratic administration, Wall Street was rescued but 10 million Americans were allowed to lose their homes. So I don't think either party has anything to brag about here.
You write about the need to get politicians to invest in early childhood programs or addiction treatment that will save multiples of what they cost over the long term. But is it realistic to think you can get people who run for office every two or four or six years to think that way?
Kristof: I'm hopeful that the politics are changing on these issues. Part of the harshness of American politics stemmed from perceptions that African Americans would disproportionately benefit—so politicians didn't invest. Paradoxically, now that a lot of working-class whites are struggling, there is much more appetite for more empathetic policies. So you see conservative states like Idaho or Utah expanding Medicaid, you see Texas cutting back on mass incarceration, and frankly, Yamhill County, which leans conservative, has a pretty good program for people wrestling with addiction.
In the book, you use the phrase "collective irresponsibility." What you mean by that?
WuDunn: In this country, there's this narrative of personal social responsibility. We expect this is a dog-eat-dog world, people fend for themselves, and we don't need to help anyone else. But that totally negates the concept of the social contract—which we all abide by, just by virtue of the fact that we live in society and take advantage of all of the benefits of society. If we want our nation to continue competing on the global stage, we all need collectively to contribute and make that happen. We also have to tend to the garden of the society.
What did you believe when you started reporting that you no longer believe?
Kristof: That economic gaps could simply be filled with payment. It's so much more than that. The loss of a job for many men in particular was as much a psychic blow as an economic one, and a monthly payment did not compensate for that. I don't think I appreciated that psychic importance of employment for a lot of workers until we began our reporting.
What do you want to make sure readers take away from your book?
Kristof: There is a risk that Americans think, "It's very sad what is happening, but there's not much we can do about it." We really do believe there are tools that can fix these problems, that it's just a matter of political will. So maybe we should've tried to make that a little bit more clear in the first few pages or somehow subliminally put the word "hope" a little bit more throughout the book.
SEE IT: Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn appear at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, portland5.com, on Thursday, Feb. 6. 7:30 pm. $37.95, includes a copy of Tightrope.