Heartbreak and Hope in Rural America: A Conversation with Nicholas Kristof
The small, blue collar town of Yamhill Oregon has been devastated in recent decades by job losses and the opioid epidemic. It’s a depressing story, but not a unique one. And in their new book “Tightrope,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn tell the story of Kristof’s hometown of Yamhill and other similar communities across the country. Spotlight recently spoke with Kristof to hear more about what he sees as the policy failures that have led us here and what potential solutions could look like. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Where did the idea for “Tightrope” come from?
Sheryl and I were traveling around the world covering humanitarian crises overseas. Periodically, we’d return to my hometown of Yamhill, Oregon and we saw that there was a humanitarian crisis happening right there. We didn’t really know how to process it at first, but we just saw that more and more people were dying from drugs, alcohol, and suicide. And then when we saw the mortality data nationwide, we realized that the same thing that happened in Yamhill was happening in communities across the country. And so, we decided to try to tell that story partly through the narrative thread of my hometown.
You both have spent a great deal of your career reporting overseas. This must have been quite the change and certainly one of the most personal projects that you have ever worked on.
When you are interviewing desperate families in a refugee camp, you have some protective armor and that helps keep you sane. But when you are talking to a very dear old friend and hearing stories, then you just have no armor at all and it’s just so heartbreaking. In South Sudan, you kind of expect to hear stories of heartbreak, but in my hometown, which had done extremely well for over 100 years, you don’t expect to encounter those kinds of stories. There’s kind of a disconnect because in Congo or Bangladesh you see malnourished families that are impoverished and you at least recognize the causes because incomes are so low and people are desperately poor. But the people who are struggling around the U.S., they have cars. Many of them have air conditioning and flat screen TVs. Those Bangladeshis would love to come to live the material lifestyle that they are enjoying here. But the common thread is there’s just a lack of hope, a lack of a sense that the future will bring anything better, and a lack of social support mechanisms that leave lives to spiral out of control. It’s a different kind of struggle when it’s families that have flat screen TV’s.
What happened in Yamhill? How did it get to this point?
Yamhill is a little farm town of about 1,000 people and its economy traditionally was dependent on agriculture, timber, and light manufacturing. The largest local employer was a glove factory. Most of those jobs went away, and if you only had a high school degree or if you had dropped out of high school, there was really nothing much that you could do. Or if you found something, it wouldn’t be a union job and it wouldn’t be a high-paying job. It would be something close to minimum wage. This was devasting particularly for men, for whom a job is a real source of pride and identity. They self-medicated with alcohol and meth and later opioids. Drugs got them a criminal record, which made them less employable and less marriageable. The family structure in Yamhill, which has been very tight, disintegrated quickly and the social institutions were just unable to cope. So, there were a lot of people that felt isolated, lonely, and lost. This little community that I love so much, that had once had a strong social fabric, it just completely unraveled.
There’s a number of moving profiles in the book. Can you talk about one that resonated with you?
The family that we opened “Tightrope” with, the Knapp Family, lived near us. There were five kids and the oldest, Farlan, was in my grade. Farlan was a very talented wood worker and all the family was very bright. They had just bought their own home and when Farlan was 16, he got a Ford Mustang for his birthday which made me and all the other kids jealous. Their dad laid pipe—he wasn’t very educated, but he had a good union job laying pipe, sewer pipe mostly. But then, the kids did not graduate from high school, they thought they could get good jobs like their dad. That did not happen. Farlan had a not great job for 20 years and then was laid off. He spiraled through drug and alcohol use and he died in 2009 from liver failure. His brother Zealan died in a house fire when he was passed out drunk. One sister, Rogena, died of hepatitis from use of injected drugs. Their brother Nathan blew himself up making meth. The only sibling who survived was Keylan, the youngest, and he survived because he spent 13 years in the state penitentiary.
In some sense it was an outlier; that was not typical. But they were one of two families, each with 5 kids, who were on my school bus. In each case, the oldest was a classmate of mine and in both cases four of the five are now dead. I knew another family with four kids and three of the four are now also dead. So, there were a lot of families imploding, a lot of catastrophes on just my bus route. And what has struck us, since the book came out, is that so many people will come up to us and say, I grew up in Texas or Maine or Indiana or wherever, and my hometown is just like yours. (Note: Kristof and WuDunn wrote about the Knapp family for the New York Times earlier this year.)
So the reaction is less shock and more people seeing their stories in what you’ve been writing?
I wish it was more shock. In fact, I’ve just been staggered by how many people from different parts of the country have said, my hometown went through exactly what yours did or worse or my family went through what some of these families experienced. I just did a radio show and a woman called in to say she had lost four of her five kids. I guess what strikes me is that in some ways it feels like another Great Depression, a great social depression. But now life expectancy is actually falling, which was not true during the Great Depression.
And yet, during the Great Depression, FDR made substantial efforts to address it with policy whereas now, it feels as if there are not serious efforts to mitigate the problems, and there isn’t even a lot of notice given to the calamity out there
Some people got out. What were the common escape routes that allowed people to avoid this?
The only institution that was really fully protective was the Mormon Church. Kids who were in the Mormon Church, they had almost complete immunity to these problems. Coming from a more affluent household, where your parents had gone to college, was also extremely beneficial. It wasn’t so much income based, it was more correlated to your parents’ education and how many books were in the house. And for those who didn’t have those protective factors, the only institution that really worked was the military. If you managed to join the military, then that often gave you a trajectory, gave you a skill set, and put you on a path to a good middle-class career.
And do you have a sense as to what extent these trends are continuing with the current generation?
Yeah, I think that is largely still true. What troubles me is that the military performs a heroic function of rescuing at-risk kids in places like Yamhill, but that’s not really the reason to have a military. In addition, most 18-year-olds aren’t actually eligible to join the military because they don’t have a high school degree; because they’re obese; because they have a criminal record; or they can’t pass a cognitive test, a physical fitness test, or a drug test. So, the kids who most need that military escape route actually aren’t eligible for it.
What are the policies interventions that would’ve helped in a place like Yamhill?
I think the single thing that might have helped most would have been some kind of early childhood programs that would have tried to address toxic stress in some dysfunctional homes and also gotten kids ready for school so that they might have enjoyed it more and stayed in. I think that making sure that kids graduate from high school instead of kicking out troublemakers would have been hugely helpful. I think that a greater focus on jobs, either giving people vocational skills to begin with, things like career academies, or job retraining programs coupled with apprenticeships for those whose jobs were no longer available, I think that might have helped. Keeping kids in high school would’ve been hugely helpful. Obviously, things like universal healthcare would have been enormously beneficial.
Were there policies that had a particularly negative impact?
I’d say what had the most damaging impact was not a policy as such but a narrative. And that’s the narrative of personal responsibility. There’s no doubt that personal self-responsibility is real and that a lot of my friends engaged in self-destructive behaviors that made their situations worse. But I think that over the last 40 or 50 years we’ve kind of become obsessed with a personal responsibility and a “boot-straps” narrative as the only explanation for what works. And I also think in Oregon we lay it on particularly thick because of the pioneers and Oregon Trial and we kind of worship our ancestors who depended on themselves . . . without ever acknowledging that the reason those pioneers undertook that incredible adventure was because of a government benefit program—once they got to the area they would get 640 acres under the Homestead Act. There were a lot of people, men in particular, who when they could not get good union jobs like their dad had, when they could not support a family the way their dad had, they were deeply upset and consoled themselves with alcohol or drugs. When they got criminal records and could not form a regular family, they became even more troubled, lonelier, and they just kind of fell apart and spiraled downward in ways that often took their children with them.
What has been the reaction to the book in your hometown?
I was nervous that people would see it as airing dirty laundry. Everyone wants to be proud of their hometown and talking about meth and kids dying is not the way anybody wants their hometown portrayed. And yet, so far, so good. People have kept saying how much they love it and I think that people know that I am one of them, that I love Yamhill and they also recognize that when so many people have died so unnecessarily, it’s not helpful to pretend the problem isn’t there and that we have to come up with new and better policies to help. I’m actually going back to speak in a few weeks, and we’ve reserved a spot for my closest neighbor growing up, who is now homeless. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by people’s willingness to acknowledge that this is a tragedy and we have to confront it. Maybe that’s why when President Trump talked about American carnage (in his 2017 inaugural address), Democrats were scornful but conservatives and Trump voters kind of nodded. And I think there is recognition in towns like Yamhill that there has been carnage. The problem is that President Trump didn’t also acknowledge that there is also hope and potential solutions, and that’s what we tried to do in Tightrope.
What do you want people to take away from the book?
What I want people to take away is that there is desperation out there and much of America is suffering in a way that it maybe hasn’t for 100 years and that this is affecting American competitiveness to a profound degree. But that there are solutions from our own experience and from other countries that wrestle with these same issues. And so, we don’t have to put up with this. We can do better. We’re going to get better polices if we acknowledge the depth of the problem and we hope that Tightrope can be a step toward that.
Nicholas D. Kristof is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times and has co-authored several books with his wife Sheryl WuDunn including “Half the Sky” and “A Path Appears.” You can find more information on their tour schedule here.