Pulitzer-Prize-winning duo talk working-class struggles

Best-selling authors Sheryl WuDunn (center) and Nicholas Kristof (right) discuss domestic politics and their book “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope” with Annenberg Dean Willow Bay (left). (Photo courtesy of Yuma Kim)

Addressing the crisis in working-class America, authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn stopped at USC Annenberg to discuss their latest New York Times Best-Seller.

The duo spoke at an event Wednesday alongside Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Dean Willow Bay about their latest book, “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” and the crisis the left-behind population of rural Americans is facing at home. The event was presented in partnership with USC Speakers Committee.

Kristof, a New York Times columnist, and WuDunn, a business executive and best-selling author make up the first husband and wife to win a Pulitzer Prize together. They have co-authored five books, including the best-sellers “Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” and “A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity.”

The book explores the crisis of America’s modern governmental failures from the perspective of families living in the rural, working-class town of Yamhill, Ore., where Kristof grew up. 

Kristof and WuDunn are known for their work covering humanitarian crises abroad in places like Cambodia, India and Afghanistan. Given the unique focus and landscape of the book, Dean Bay kicked off the conversation by asking how the topic originated.

According to Kristof, the subject matter of the book was chosen organically. Years of observing his hometown through visits to family and friends slowly unveiled a crisis.

“We would come back from covering these overseas humanitarian crises to my hometown and we saw a humanitarian crisis unfold there in slow motion,” Kristof said. “A quarter of the kids on my old No. 6 school bus have died from drugs, alcohol and suicide.”

The topic of left-behind communities experiencing tragedy and stagnation right in America — which rarely garners enough national attention to enact change — was a focus of ssthe book talk.

While the duo knows Kristof’s hometown best, the authors made sure to iterate that the problems and plights the people in Yamhill face are not anomalies.

“We started doing more research nationwide to find out there is a lot of dysfunction going on in a lot of places in the country,” WuDunn said.

The promotional video for “Tightrope,” shared in front of the audience, illustrates some of this dysfunction. In the film, Kristof explains the severity of income inequality in the country.

“America is unique when it comes to income inequality — we are the richest country on the planet with the worst poverty,” Kristof said. “That’s who we are.” 

Like many rural communities, Yamhill has very little job opportunity, as well as high rates of addiction, little educational opportunity, lack of healthcare access and lower life expectancies. WuDunn discussed life expectancy rates in rural communities similar to Yamhill.

“There is lots of research now that shows that, depending on what ZIP code you are born in, we can predict with fairly good accuracy what your outcome’s going to be like in a couple of decades,” WuDunn said. 

Detailing her findings, WuDunn spoke of the parallels between U.S. cities and international cities typically known for gross poverty and inequality. 

“I mean, it’s unbelievable. One example is that a kid born in Shannon County, S.D. has a life expectancy that is lower than an infant born in Bangladesh or Cambodia. That’s stunning,” WuDunn said. And there are two other counties in Florida that have a lower life expectancy than babies born in Cambodia or Bangladesh”

Kristof and WuDunn said they believe that by sharing the deeply personal stories of people living in Yamhill, people can better understand how the government has failed many other rural communities. 

“We tend to overlook the fact that some of these people, they are struggling with drugs, but they have a talent,” WuDunn said. “We just think, ‘Oh gosh, they’ve messed up their lives, it’s a disaster,’ and often they just need a little bit of help. That’s the way we approached these characters.”

The two said the lack of empathy and the assumption that certain people are a lost cause who do not need support is a perspective shared by the government. WuDunn commented on how the United States’ perception abroad can skew realities at home.

“Think about child mortality — we are No. 41,” WuDunn said. “Forty-one of 148 countries that are actually measured by the Social Progress Index, which is something that was developed by three Nobel laureates, so it has a lot of credibility. For access to clean water, don’t you think America has great access compared to other countries? We are No. 44 with access to clean water.” 

As advocates for underserved rural communities without class privilege, Kristof and WuDunn said they hope to expose how American policies support some citizens but fail others.

“I think there’s often a tendency, and maybe particularly in California, to think that it’s too bad but this is because of global issues of technology and globalization and automation, and I don’t think that’s right,” Kristof said. “I think that’s a myth that we use to console ourselves. Fundamentally, this is about policy choices that we took as a nation.”

“Tightrope” exposes hidden problems and shares the stories of those whose voices often go unheard in the U.S. — stories that Kristof and WuDunn believe deserve to be told and prioritized.

During the discussion, Yuma Kim, senior majoring in international relations and human security and geospatial intelligence posed a question on staying hopeful and constructive while covering such heavy issues.

Kristof responded optimistically, leaving the audience hopeful.

“People often think that because I cover genocide and human trafficking and war and drugs and so on, I must be incredibly depressed, and I’m actually not,” Kristof said. “Part of it is that when you go out and cover these issues side-by-side by the worst, you see the very best.”

At the end of the event, many attendees purchased their own copy of “Tightrope” directly from the authors themselves.

“It’s time for a new version of the American Dream,” Kristof said. “One that includes everybody.”