Working Class Plight Calls for “Opportunity-Creating” Policies, Authors Tell Gousha

Nick Kristof grew up in Yamhill, Oregon, a small town about 30 miles southwest of Portland, where the economy was based on agriculture, timber, and light manufacturing. Among those who rode on the same school bus he did were kids from a family that was doing well.

But over time, the economy of the area declined, many jobs disappeared, and that family lost its stability.

Kristof, who is now 61, went on to become a Pulitzer Prize winning author and New York Times columnist. But all five of the children in that family and a quarter of the kids who rode that childhood school bus with Kristof died what Kristof calls “deaths of despair,” including from drug overdoses and alcohol abuse.

That’s part of the reason why Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, wrote a book, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope. The bigger reason, though is that they found, as they researched the book across the United States, that what had happened to people in Yamhill was similar to what had happened to millions of working class people in urban, suburban and rural communities and of all races and backgrounds.

In a virtual ”On the Issues with Mike Gousha” interview, posted on Marquette Law School’s Web site on October 5, 2020, Kristof and WuDunn said there are elements of the American dream that remain. But overall, it has become much harder to pursue that dream since the 1970s and the working class is not doing well. There have been major changes due to the globalization of the economy and other factors, but some of the reasons for the working class’ problems lie in prevailing attitudes and policies in the US, the two of them said.

Kristof said that since the 1970s, barriers to moving up the economic ladder have increased and it is generally no longer feasible to work your way through college. Rich kids go to rich schools while poor kids go to poor schools. The best predictor of where you will end up in life is where you started.

Kristof criticized the attitude of many who are in positions of power toward those who aren’t. “This hostility to those who struggle in the US and this emphasis on kind of the pull-yourself-up-by-the bootstraps narrative. . . is a reason why we have so many policies in the US that haven’t worked.”

Other countries such as Germany and Canada that have dealt with the impact of globalization have working classes that have fared better due to policies such as better job training, better family support, including early child care programs, and universal health care, WuDunn and Kristof said.

WuDunn, who was a New York Times foreign correspondent and who how works in finance and consulting, asked, “How are we going to compete as a country when we have only a small sliver of the American population that is functioning at full capacity and full potential. We need every single American working on all cylinders.”

Kristof said the new book was written “as kind of a wake up call” for the US. He said the nation achieved greatness by creating engines of opportunity. “We’ve backed away from those opportunity-creating mechanisms,” he said, and we need to get back into the opportunity-creation business. There are policies that could do that, he said, by helping people establish more stable lives and overcome hurdles such as health issues.

Kristof and WuDunn have co-authored four prior books, including the best selling Half the Sky. They were the first husband and wife to share a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

Video of the interview with Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, may be found by clicking here.   


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