WuDunn: 'Humanitarian crisis' in America's backyard

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist's assembly discusses book that explores nation's "unraveling" working class.

Patrick Garrity
January 26, 2021

Sheryl WuDunn and her writing partner and husband, Nicholas Kristof, have written about some of the worst outrages against humankind in the past half-century, from the Chinese government’s murderous crackdown of protests in Tiananmen Square to the genocide in Darfur.

One of the most wrenching stories they’ve had to tell, however, is the human tragedy unfolding across America.

WuDunn spoke to Exeter students Tuesday about that tragedy that she and Kristoff explore in their latest book, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (Knopf, January 2020). The book takes readers on a misery tour of what the authors claim is the forgotten America, the country left behind by policymakers and afflicted by an apathy for the less fortunate.

“This is a book we never anticipated writing,” she told the students in a Zoom webinar presentation. “A humanitarian crisis in our own backyard.”

The trigger was their return to Kristof’s hometown in rural Oregon. WuDunn and Kristof found a town ravaged by low wages and high unemployment, homelessness, alcoholism and drug abuse. The authors use the school bus which Kristof rode to school as the literary vehicle to propel their tale: One in four children who rode the No. 6 bus to Yamhill, Oregon, schools in the 1970s is dead today, including all five Knapps, Kristof’s childhood neighbors.

“Of the two boys that Nick walked to the bus stop with each day, Mike is a homeless alcoholic living in a park, and Bobby is serving a life sentence in prison for offenses so harrowing that the family has cut him off,” they write.

“This is a book we never anticipated writing: a humanitarian crisis in our own backyard.”

Yamhill, Oregon, is not an aberration, not some magnet of despair that attracts only the nation’s unluckiest souls. It is sadly typical, the authors found. Their exploration wound through all 50 states, red and blue; their book tells similar stories to Yamhill’s from Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

“In doing our research and reporting for this book, we came to see that life’s journey for affluent, well-educated American families is like a stroll along a wide, smooth path, forgiving of missteps. But increasingly, for those from lower on the socioeconomic spectrum, life resembles a tightrope walk. Some make it across, but for so many, one stumble and that’s it. What’s more, a tumble from the tightrope frequently destroys not only that individual but the entire family, including children and, through them, grandchildren. The casualties are everywhere in America, if we only care to notice.”

WuDunn began her professional career as a banker and loan officer after graduating from Cornell in 1981. Master’s degrees from Harvard Business School and Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs followed, but when Kristof was posted to China by The New York Times, her path took a turn. At the time, foreigners were not allowed to work for Chinese banks. So, WuDunn started reporting and writing, first for The Wall Street Journal and then for the Times.

In 1990, she and Kristof were the first married team to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of Tiananmen Square. Their third book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide inspired a global movement of women’s empowerment.

WuDunn spoke in her prepared remarks Tuesday about researching Tightrope and about how what she calls “disastrous policy choices over 50 years” have widened the chasm of haves and have-nots in America. She later fielded questions from students in a question-and-answer session moderated by Anne Brandes ’21 and Felix Yeung ’21.

She encouraged everyone to engage politically and socially: “We’ve been less involved politically, but this last election shows how much a stake that each American has in the direction of the country.”

Asked if socialist policies might be a cure for capitalism’s ailments, she called arguing over those labels “definitional semantics,” and what decision makers must actually do is come up with the “most reasonable and efficient form of organization that will create rising standard of living in the most equitable ways.

“We have seen capitalism can do it with the right rules, with the right guardrails. We also have seen that unfettered capitalist won’t work.”

“This country needs to come to terms with facts. And you need to call out fiction when it is presented as fact. …at some point, you have to draw the line.”

One of the last questions posed was about social media and the idea of platforms applying a version of the “fairness doctrine” that the FCC once required of holders of broadcast licenses to “present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced.” The rule was eliminated in 1987.

“This country needs to come to terms with facts,” she said. “And you need to call out fiction when it is presented as fact. …at some point, you have to draw the line.”