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Nicholas Kristof On Hope And Despair Among The Working Class

Nicholas Kristof and Sally Mauk
Nicholas Kristof and Sally Mauk

Pulitzer Prize winning author and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is in Missoula to deliver a Mansfield Lecture at UM. Kristof has reported from trouble spots all over the world, but his latest book, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, co-written with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, looks at the challenges facing America's working class. Kristof joins Sally Mauk to talk about the book

The following is an automated transcription and may contain errors.

Sally Mauk Well, Mr. Kristof, first of all, your new book, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope. It was written with your wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and it's about who you called the, quote, invisible poor, many of whom I think you grew up with in Yamhill, Oregon. You believe that that invisibility is a choice Americans make?

Nicholas Kristof  Yeah, I mean, I'd say that it's not you know, we don't aim to write just about the poor, but you know, really about the bottom half of the American society. It has been left behind and is still stuck earning about what they did in the nineteen seventies. In 2020, the average nonsupervisory wage is lower than it was in September 1973, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And so there are an awful lot of people who've been left behind. And then, you know, these communities unraveled. And that's my hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, is one example of that. And then I think that the fact that these issues don't get enough attention. I spend a lot of time reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those were important stories and they deserve attention. But meanwhile, every two weeks, we lose more Americans from drugs, alcohol and suicide than we lost in 18 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I don't think that we as journalists have adequately highlighted the suffering out there in communities across the country.

Sally Mauk Yeah, you called those deaths of despair right now. Well, your book also makes the point that the U.S. has decided to deal with problems like addiction punitively instead of with compassion, and that that's part of why things have gotten worse.

Nicholas Kristof Exactly. So one of the things we write about in tightrope is that in the 1990s, the U.S. and Portugal were both wrestling with drug problems, with opioid problems. So the U.S. doubled down on the law enforcement tool locks. We're going to lock people up. You know, those junkies, meanwhile, in Portugal, they emphasized the public health to a. So they did not lock people up. Instead, they provided treatment and nobody knew whether that would work. But the result was the number of heroin users in Portugal dropped by two thirds. And now Portugal has the lowest drug fatality rate in Western Europe. And meanwhile, we lost 68000 Americans each year. It's still stuck at a rate that is far, far higher. I think. I work out that it's 350 times the level of Portugal. I mean, this is partly because of dumb decisions by drug users, but it's also because of dumb decisions by us as a country not to provide treatment for people who desperately need it.

Sally Mauk There is a quote in the book that really struck me and you quote is this Humans are moved to help individuals, not to address structural problems. And you use an example like someone goes online and they have a go fund me, tug at people's heartstrings and people take their piggy banks to help that person. But the structural changes to help all the people who can't do it go fund me.

Nicholas Kristof Yeah, I think we've Holly wrote about that in the context of a an incredible kid at a homeless shelter who won this state chess tournament. I wrote a column about him and readers raised $250000 for him and readers donated a home for the family. And it was so inspiring to see this outpouring of support for this family. And that's wonderful. But at the end of the day, it's not just child prodigies who should not be homeless. And winning the state test tournament is not a scalable problem for child homelessness in America. You know, it's end of the day, we would not have tried to solve the lack of interstate highways with volunteers and private donations. You need to have a national system in the same way we can address child homelessness with volunteers and GoFundMe as you do close the book with proposed solutions.

Sally Mauk And one I think is so key, and that's early childhood intervention that the trauma of childhood has to be addressed early on.

Nicholas Kristof Absolutely. That is a single highest return. Investment available in the U.S. is not with hedge funds, is now with private equity. It's investing in early childhood programs for at risk kids. And I hope that one thing that comes out of this election campaign is here is a national high quality child care program modeled on what the U.S. military provides soldiers, which is a terrific pro. Because, of course, the military needs to make sure that soldiers who were often married to other soldiers, that, you know, they can go to work and have confidence that their kids are looked after well. And it's a really well run program and we need to scale it up so other kids have access to that, too.

Sally Mauk You brought up the election year that we're in and the solutions you propose. Mr. Kristof depend on it. Compassionate political culture. And that seems to be the central debate of this election season. Are we going to have that kind of political compassion or are we not?

Nicholas Kristof So we'll have will depend on on white working class voters, for example, and they're an ambivalent group. So there were eight million of them who in 2012 had voted for Obama, who in 2016 voted for Trump. Muthanna actually has a lot of such voters. And, you know, they tend to be socially very conservative, but economically quite liberal. And so if they go to the voting booth and thinking about abortion rights and conservative judges, they will vote Republican. If they're thinking about gun rights, they will vote Republican. But if they're thinking about raising the minimum wage, they will vote Democratic. If they're thinking about getting health care, they will vote Democratic. The thing about parental leave, maybe if they're thinking about early childhood programs, they might vote Democratic. And Democrats also have to do a better job reaching out to those voters and and listening to them. And it would also help Democrats stop calling them deplorable or suggesting that every Trump voter is a bigot and a racist. But, you know, understanding people are complicated.

Sally Mauk You wrote a recent column where you said Bernie Sanders stands for a lot of what you believe in, but you support Joe Biden.

Nicholas Kristof Yeah, I. My fear was that Bernie Sanders, a, that he would be less likely to win the presidency. And be that in particular, you'd make it harder for the Democrats to win the Senate. I don't know. In Montana, it'd be interesting to know whether, you know, what Steve Look would think about his chances with Biden at the top of the ticket versus Sanders. But in Alabama, for example, I think it is clear that Doug Jones, the Democratic incumbent, has a better chance of being reelected if Biden is is the top of the ticket than if Sanders were. And likewise, in Arizona, for example, I think that's clearly true as well. You know, politics is the art of the possible. And I think it's incredibly important for the country that Democrats win the Senate. And so I I think Biden is a better has a better shot at that.

Sally Mauk One final question for you, that given all the despair and tragedy that you've covered in your many decades of reporting, you still are an optimist. I think your book is optimistic.

Nicholas Kristof Yeah, no, partly that's because these kinds of issues I really do that we wrote about in tightrope. I really do see solutions. So, look, you know, I've covered genocide. That's that's a really hard problem. It's hard to figure out what you do with it. Covered a lot of wars. That's difficult. Afghanistan, that's really messy. But. The drug problem in America, we know that treatment works really well. We've seen it work in parts of the U.S. We've seen it work in Portugal. Homelessness again. That's about the most difficult problem we face domestically and there's no perfect solution to it. But when we got embarrassed about veteran homelessness, we were able to reduce it by half because it became a priority. If it were a similar priority to reduce child homelessness, we could reduce it by half as well. Look, all countries around the world are wrestling with automation and globalization. There's a real problems, but no other country is seeing life expectancy fall for three years in a row. Every other country in the world manages to do a better job just about handling some of these problems. And so in tight rope, we try to provide some of the lessons of what those places are doing in some of the lessons about what places in this country are doing. We can make a lot of progress and make this a better and more competitive country.

Sally Mauk I've been speaking with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
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