Sheryl WuDunn Paints a Picture of Poverty in America and Offers Hope for Solutions

Sheryl WuDunnon
Sheryl WuDunn describes intimate stories of inequality and poverty in her recent book Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (coauthored with Nicholas Kristof). She is a pulitzer prize winning reporter and business executive. This is the 45th episode of the Democracy Paradox podcast. 

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That’s why all Americans should care. Because the cost of poverty is not just the cost to that person who is in poverty. It’s a cost to all of society. We’re all paying for people being jailed. We’re all paying for extra costs in the legal system, in the police force, in the healthcare system.

Sheryl WuDunn

Key Highlights Include

  • Stories of Poverty and Inequality in America
  • Challenges in America in Education, Health, and Well-Being
  • Impact of Poverty on Children with an Explanation of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
  • Collective Responsibility to Solve Social Problems
  • Rethinking of Social Programs as Investments Rather than Outlays

Podcast Transcript

“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…. A tumble from the tightrope frequently destroys not only that individual but the entire family, including children and, through them, grandchildren.” This is one of many quotable passages from the book Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope. It’s the recent book from Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof. 

Sheryl and Nick are a husband and wife team who have written many books together, covered global events together, and won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the events surrounding the Tiananmen Square Massacre. 

But I find it difficult to explain a book like Tightrope. On the one hand, it offers short vignettes into tales of tragedy and triumph. Many stories will break your heart. But it also has an intelligent message and theme. I’m comfortable including it among recent works on inequality, but it’s message is bolder than most. Indeed, it goes beyond a mere diagnosis of social ills to indict not just public policy and politicians, but the American society who enable them. This book turns the meaning of the phrase, “Poverty is a choice” back onto ourselves. Sheryl and Nick argue poverty is a choice, a choice society makes. It exists because we have done too little to end it. 

My conversation with Sheryl covers a lot of ground. We discuss inequality and social responsibilities. Sheryl shares a few stories from her book. But more than anything, she believes every problem has a solution. And we already have the capacity to solve big problems so long as we focus on outcomes rather than challenges. This is my conversation with Sheryl WuDunn…


Sheryl WuDunn, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.


Thank you, Justin. Glad to be here.


Sheryl, I keep coming back to a line near the end of your book. You write, “So often in America, we increasingly saw our end point depends on our starting point.” Let’s make this, our starting point. Tell me what that line means to you.


I think a lot of what we try to do in Tightrope was to show people that you can make progress and that there isn’t an issue just about social justice. That there are many other reasons why other people can gather around the goal of trying to lift all Americans up. We all want to be part of a country that is a winning country. We want to be part of the winning team. But we also need to maintain our competitiveness on the global stage, if we want the U.S. to remain on top as number one. We have lost ground in so many different industries in so many different areas.   When it comes to education, we were pioneers in mass education and look where we are now. On the social progress index, we’re like in the twenties. We should at least be in the top 10.

So, the idea of where we put the goalposts, they may have to keep moving as we improve, but we have to set our sights on something. And it’s really important to continue to do that and to think about how we create that process whereby we are continually improving and setting better goals. Our goal should be a hundred percent graduation of all Americans from high school. Is that an unreasonable goal? And then if we make that one, then we should strive to get everyone going to some form of community college or college. We can do that and we’ve seen other countries do that. Countries that were a lot farther behind than we were. And so, we can do it. There’s no reason why we can’t.


I think sometimes you have to make unreasonable goals in order to take the kind of steps that you need to accomplish them. Way too often In public policy and business, anytime that you’ve got a moment where you need to make a change, people use the fact that it’s so difficult to make that change as an excuse to do nothing rather than to offer an alternative or a secondary plan. They just say, well, it’s difficult to do so we can’t do it. So, I think sometimes unrealistic goals allow us to be able to set our sights on what it is that we want to accomplish and start figuring out how we get there.


Absolutely, I think that’s really important. And I think that’s sometimes though very tied to why a lot of Americans are apathetic about just society in general and some of the goals that we talk about in Tightrope. So, for instance, some people will say, ‘Oh, well, there are always Americans who will be doing drugs. There are always Americans who are going to be alcoholics. There are always Americans who are going to commit suicide.’ And therefore, you have the deaths of despair. We have some horrible statistics over the past few years. There’s been great research that we point out by two Princeton economists on census data that showed even before the pandemic that three out of the four previous years, we had deaths of despair that actually led to a shorter average lifespan of Americans.

I mean, it hadn’t been since the previous pandemic in 1918-1919, where we actually had a steady decrease over a number of years in the lifespan of Americans. For basically a hundred years, we were increasing our lifespan because we have greater healthcare technologies, we have solved a lot of issues when it comes to diseases, and so people were living longer. But because of the deaths of despair, in the years proceeding the pandemic, we were having a shortened lifespan and of course the pandemic has shortened lifespans also. The reason why I think that we want more Americans to care is that when you get to competition, global competition, if you want to be on the winning team, you got to make sure that all of your teammates, that’s all 320 million Americans, are operating on all the cylinders that they have.

And so that means really trying to lift Americans out of their addictions as much as possible, employing treatment programs instead of jail terms. Those are much more effective ways to address some of these problems, rather than just locking people up. That’s just not going to solve problems. And we’re very much focused on solving problems so that we can get back to being number one in so many of these areas of the world.


Now, a lot’s been written on economic inequality. You mentioned the work on Deaths of Despair by Angus Deaton and Anne Case. We could think about the work from Thomas Piketty on inequality around the world. I even had Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson on the podcast to talk about the political ramifications of inequality. Your book does use lots of statistics, but your aim is oftentimes to provide a human dimension to the discussion. So how does economic inequality look to those who are left behind?


That’s a very interesting question. And a lot of people who we wrote about, who we interviewed in great depth, and who we knew very personally because of their connection and our connection to Yamhill where my husband basically grew up. They don’t think of themselves as the dregs of society and they don’t want your pity. They don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, this person is a failure and we need to give them subsidies.’ They obviously want to be thought of as, you know, ‘I’m a human being. I have desires. I have wants and friendships. I have relationships.  I do have failures, but on balance, I’m a good person.’ And so, I think that we have to think of them, rather than as a statistic, as a real human being.

And we had written a lot in the developing world about some of the challenges of poverty and families that were just impoverished to the degree that you can’t imagine here as an American. But when we came to the U S and we spoke to some of these people, whether it’s in rural Oregon or in urban Baltimore or all across the country in many different places, in many different contexts, what we discovered is that the human pain and suffering is just as real and devastating to livelihoods here as what we saw overseas. The type of suffering, emotional suffering and psychological suffering, in the U S is just as severe as what we saw abroad in the developing world. And that’s very real.

And so, as a country, we need to figure out how to deal with it. And that’s important because that’s going to be what will help turn Americans who are facing addiction, turn them around. And we also have to give them hope. We have to give these Americans hope. And one of the problems that we see in America is that the ladder of opportunity is basically broken. Education used to be a way out of poverty.

The military is still a way out of poverty, but even now the military is almost inaccessible for a lot of people. In the military right now you need to graduate from high school. And as I mentioned earlier, one in seven people doesn’t graduate from high school in America. We need to get a hundred percent graduation rates. So, for a lot of people who in the past the military was a way out of poverty. That’s no longer an option for a lot of them because they just won’t qualify. So, I think that we need to really start addressing some of these problems that get in the way of Americans trying to emerge from their situations.


So, I mentioned earlier about setting unrealistic goals and you mentioned trying to accomplish 100% graduation rates of high school which sounds unrealistic on the face of it. But you cite some statistics in your book that demonstrate that around the world, they have dramatically higher high school graduation rates. What really shocked me was not that Europe was producing those rates, but even a country like Russia was far ahead of us.


Oh, it’s remarkable. I mean, other countries in Asia too are ahead of us. I mean, that’s because they focus on it. They say, ‘This is something we care about.’ And in the U S we can do this too when we care about something. One of the most intractable problems that we also mentioned in Tightrope is for instance, homelessness, veteran homelessness. And I want to use this as an example, because it is one of these problems that people say is insolvable, right? Well, you know, it started during the Obama administration when people were so embarrassed that we had veteran homelessness. These are people who served our country, who potentially could have died for our country, but they come back home and how do we treat them? Let them be homeless.

Well, they started a program because we know what can work. And they funded it, that’s important. And they said treatment was really important. That it isn’t just that the person doesn’t have a home and they can’t afford it. It’s because they’re suffering from things like addiction, from alcoholism, from a lack of being able to provide for themselves.

So, we went to Baltimore Station and we interviewed people at a program that said, ‘These are the issues that veterans face and we got to get them off addiction. We need treatment. We can’t just have them in and out of jail all the time.’ And during the Obama administration we were able to cut by nearly half the amount of veteran homelessness and then the Trump administration continued the program and they further decreased the percentage of homelessness among veterans. So, we can address some of these intractable problems. We just need to bring some political will and funding to the problems.

So, I think that they are definitely solvable, especially education. The problem right now is that we had the pandemic, which exacerbated it because now you had people who had to go to school remote. And how interesting is that for people? Right? Because so much of school is about social interactions. It’s about your friends. It’s about the crushes that you have in school, right? That’s what keeps you going to school. Well, you didn’t have that. Beyond that you also had people in rural areas like here in Yamhill who have terrible broadband. I mean, even now I have very weak broadband because it’s just not available in the rural areas. We’re actually in rural Oregon.

And so, McKinsey says you’ll have probably about a million high school students dropping out because of the pandemic. So that means the high school graduation is going to decline. That’s the people who they can count. Other reports have said that there are students during COVID who’ve just gone missing. They may have started trying to sign up on Zoom or whatever they’re using. And then over time they just stopped showing up. And it wasn’t as though the teachers could go drive to the homes and say, ‘What’s going on?’ They can’t do that because it was COVID. There was a pandemic going on. So, these kids are just missing, missing from school. And so, what’s going to happen to this generation because of the pandemic? That’s a really scary thought.

So, on top of the already fragile situation that we had before the pandemic, we will have to deal with the aftermath. But thankfully we do have, you know, something like the American Rescue Plan and we’re going to have more money being thrown at rural broadband and education. And I think it is going to be a mission of this current administration to try and educate Americans once again and make that a focus because without education, we’re not going to reclimb or regain our premier status in the world.


You’ve mentioned homelessness just a moment ago. And one scholar, a sociologist that you interviewed was Matthew Desmond. And he really opened my eyes to the way that parents are often punished for having children where they’re more likely to be evicted than people who don’t have children because children can cause problems. you know, stuff can happen. And so oftentimes people are more likely to be evicted when they’re parents. There’s a quote from your book that emphasizes the way that we’ve really let our children down. You say, “Let’s be blunt: America as a nation is guilty of child neglect. We have punished children mainly because they don’t vote.” Which, I mean, we see this in multiple ways. So, the homelessness problem, one way that we’re punishing children. Healthcare, another way that we’re punishing children. Education, there are so many ways.


Absolutely. In fact, unfortunately the pandemic has made it even worse. Usually through school child abuse is reported because teachers see something or the TA sees something or fellow students will say, ‘Oh, something’s wrong with Joey.’ We don’t have that now because no one’s going to school and no one’s looking at the bruises that are on the kids’ arms or on the kids’ legs. And so, I think that this is going to be a huge problem. When things start to surface, hopefully we will recover and return to normal. And people will see children once again and find out what’s going on. But child neglect is a huge problem.

There’s something called ACEs, which is basically Adverse Childhood Experiences. And many of us grew up with one or two ACEs. You know, if your parents get divorced, or if there’s a big move that shakes up your framework of living, when you’re very young, it can be very taxing and traumatic. So most of us have survived one or two and we always say, ‘Oh, children are very resilient.’ But they’re not resilient when they have seven, eight, nine different ACEs. When there’s child abuse, or when there’s abuse in the house or, you know, they start adding up and then. It gets really taxing on the child when you’re a child between zero and five years old.

What’s happening is that your brain is growing at the fastest rate it will ever grow in your lifetime and your brain architecture is forming. And if you have a lot of stress in the home that creates, basically cortisol. It’s a stress hormone. We experience as adults, stress hormones, going through our brain when we are under stress. Well, believe it or not, kids do that too. They feel that stress and the cortisol, when it courses to their brains, when they are zero to five, it can impair the development of their brain architecture. Now, you know, when they’re young, it can be reconnected if it’s addressed right away.

But in so many cases these ACEs go undetected and these poor kids, they grow up with seven, eight, nine, 10 ACEs. And then how are they ever going to get redirected onto the right trajectory if they don’t have help. Because you do need help in those situations. Maybe in their teens are going to turn into juvenile delinquents and by their twenties, they may end up in and out of jail and won’t have graduated from high school, let alone even go to college. But it’s beyond that. It’s also, when they get to be early middle age, they will have health problems. They’ve linked adverse childhood experiences to chronic diseases like diabetes, like heart disease.

So, this becomes a cost to society overall. That’s why all Americans should care. Because the cost of poverty is not just the cost to that person who is in poverty. It’s a cost to all of society. We’re all paying for people being jailed. We’re all paying for extra costs in the legal system, in the police force, in the healthcare system. So, you want your taxes to be more efficiently spent? Well, one of the more efficient ways that it can be spent is actually in these types of programs that address childhood abuse, poverty, childhood ACEs, because the return on that, addressing these problems when these kids are young, it’s a lot cheaper than addressing them when they’re adults. And so, the return on it is like seven, eight, nine, ten times on your dollar.


Yeah. I have a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old. And my wife and I are busy.  We’ve got full-time jobs. We’ve got careers. Sometimes we can get a little too focused on ourselves. And I can tell that when we start demonstrating stress in the home that our kids sense that stress and reflect it themselves. And our kids are lucky. They’ve got a family that reads to them. They’ve got grandparents nearby. They don’t have the same type of ACEs. So, I can imagine How much different it is in a household where you have lots of challenges and lots of problems. You mentioned in the book, how those challenges follow from one generation to the next. They repeat. Can you explain how that happens?


Oh, absolutely. So, the Knapp family is one example of a family where we’ve seen intergenerational poverty and affliction. So, Nick rode the bus with the Knapps. Five Knapp kids, all rambunctious, fun-loving kids, getting on the bus right after he got on the bus in Yamhill, number six school bus. It was Farlan, the oldest, who was in Nick’s grade, and then there was Zealan, and then there’s Rogena, and then there was Nathan, and then there was  Keylan. And the problem is that the father was an alcoholic. I mean, a real alcoholic. Every night, he would go to the local town and he would drink. He had a job, every now and then, I mean, it wasn’t a steady job, but he would lay pipe. He did things like that.

But the problem is that he was also very abusive when he was drunk. To the point where he would take a gun and wield it at his wife, Dee Knapp, who would literally run outside and cower among whatever bushes and trees she could find, because he would be shooting at her. ‘Where are you? Where are you?’ You can imagine growing up in that kind of environment. And poor Farlan would throw out a sleeping bag to his mom so that she could stay safe by sleeping outside. I mean, that’s just a terrible thing for a young child to have to do. So, you can imagine the kind of environment he was growing up in.

Well, of course, Farlan didn’t graduate from high school, but he got a job. In those days, you know, eighties or late seventies you could leave school without graduating, but you would get a local job. You know, he got a job installing heat systems and cooling systems and it was a fine job, but then he lost it. You know, he lost his job and then he started self-medicating. Doing drugs. Then he started doing meth. In fact, he started cooking meth, which, , unfortunately he was able to apply whatever chemistry skills that he had to doing meth rather than getting an A in chemistry in high school. But that actually really began the downward spiral. And then he ended up dying early related to his drug use and alcoholism.

His brothers and sisters all ended up not graduating from high school either. Nathan actually ended up blowing himself up cooking meth and dying that way. Zealan died in a house fire because he was passed out drunk. And then Rogena died because of hepatitis related to her drug and alcohol use. The youngest one, Keylan, had survived into the pandemic and we interviewed him at great length. And we were so excited, because about a year ago we were planning to do a panel after Tightrope came out and he was going to be on the panel and he was going to tell his story. He was saying, ‘You wrote about my family which is great, but I want to tell my family story. It’s my story.’ Absolutely. That’s great. Well, he lost his job in the pandemic and he ended up overdosing on heroin.

And then in Farlan’s case, his daughters, one of them was alcoholic and she basically died from alcoholism at the age of 28. Her sister in her thirties was doing fine, except when her father and her sister died, she lost it and she turned to drugs. And so now she’s been in and out of jail, because of her drug use and she’s lost her kids to foster care. So that’s what intergenerational poverty and addiction and alcoholism looks like. It’s because the household that you’re raised in, if there is child neglect or child abuse, it’s very hard to climb out without some basically professional help, people who know how to extract children from these situations. But we have seen that you can do this.

In Tightrope, we described this wonderful program called Circle Preschool. It’s a wonderful program and basically it brings in trained psychological teachers who know how to help these kids when they’re two, three, four, five years old, and we’ve interviewed parents who’ve seen their kids be turned around. They’ve said, ‘It’s like a miracle.’ It can work. We just need to pour more money into these kinds of programs so that you can put children back on the right trajectory.


I expected the stories in your book to invoke a sense of compassion, and there are lots of stories that do that. I mean, your heart strings are tugged. I’m not a crier, but I almost cried.


Oh, no? You almost cried? You didn’t cry?


You know, there might’ve been a few tears, but I hid them from the kids. But I was actually surprised because the dominant theme of the book I felt was not about compassion or empathy, but actually about responsibility. There’s a quote in your book where you say, “If we’re going to blame the kids, we should also acknowledge our collective failure to do a better job creating safety nets.” To me, this wasn’t a book about how we should feel empathy for these people. It was a sense that we have a collective responsibility to do more. Can you talk a little bit about the responsibilities we have to the communities and those around us?


Yes.  There is this space narrative of personal responsibility that you should lift yourself up by the bootstraps. The problem is that saying came about a century ago or even longer. Much earlier when people used to invoke it, they knew it was impossible to lift yourself up by the bootstraps physically. It’s just impossible. But over time in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, it started being used as, ‘Yes, this is something that you should be able to do. Lift yourself up by the bootstraps.’ And so that narrative of being responsible for only yourself, and if you make a mistake you wallow in your dirt, you got dig yourself out. Well, that’s really, kind of short-sighted, for several reasons. First of all, people who are much more educated or in the upper classes, they get help from everywhere.

Their parents have connections to get jobs, you know, all sorts of things. We get help all the time. So, we should acknowledge that we get help all the time.  There are many times when even the richest Americans feel down and out. They feel horrible and they reach out. And they can find someone, because they have the wherewithal to do that. But people who are in a situation where they’re totally impoverished, they don’t have any financial access. They don’t have a home. If they’re homeless, they don’t have the kind of resources to draw upon that we educated people have. And so, for us to say, you know, you got to dig yourself out of your hole. That’s really very short-sighted because that person has a lot of potential and could someday, if helped, can really turn around their lives and start contributing to society.

So, we, as a society, have a collective responsibility. It’s not as though we want to put them on life support forever. They just need a helping hand in a short time of space and then they can become productive members of society and start paying taxes, just like the rest of us. And that’s what we want. We want better outcomes. Compassion is very important, but compassion that leads to better outcomes is what we ultimately want.

So, a case in point that I’d like to raise is when the financial crisis hit, companies were laying off people, both in Detroit, but also in other plants that they had elsewhere. And in one case, GM and other automakers had plants in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. And so, they laid off people in both areas. And so, you could compare what happened to those people who were laid off. So, in the U.S., of course, we gave extra unemployment insurance. So, they got better benefits from unemployment, but they lost their healthcare because their healthcare came with their job. So that’s a double stressor on the family. Not only does the breadwinner lose the job, but the whole family loses their healthcare, which is a stress on the entire family.

Over in Windsor, Ontario, Canada what happened was, yes, the person lost their job, but they didn’t lose their healthcare because Canada has national healthcare. Moreover, Canada said, ‘Well, wait a second. Let’s figure what we do with all these people who are laid off.’ And they looked in the area to find out what industries were hiring. And they discovered that the nursing industry, the healthcare industry could use a lot of people. So, they basically helped facilitate the training programs of these laid off auto workers to learn something about healthcare, whether it’s nursing or other healthcare opportunities. And so, a lot of these people went into these retraining programs and they were temporary of course, because they retrain them well enough so that these people could learn enough to get a job in the healthcare industry.

So, a lot of these laid off workers were then reushered into the workforce again. They became tax paying members of society. They didn’t have all, the psychological burden that continues with people who are unemployed for a long period of time. And they were no longer a burden on Canada’s tax system or welfare system because they were paying taxes again. But in the U.S., how long it took for so many of these laid off workers to get back on their feet. And many of them never did. They became the long-term unemployed who no longer were looking for employment. They started self-medicating. So, it’s collective responsibility to make sure people can get back on their feet. It’s not like let’s put these people on subsidies for the rest of their life.

No, that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for just short-term injections of help so that people can get back on their feet. No one wants to become a lifelong subsidy absorbing person. I mean, they don’t want handouts from the government for the rest of their life. Most people have a sense of dignity about themselves and want to be a contributor to society.


The irony of the narrative of just pure individualism to me is that in business, which is supposed to be the most individualistic part of our society, in business it’s all about building teams. It’s about building organizations. As you move of up the ladder in a business, they’re asking how did you develop other people, not what did you perform today. So, I can imagine that if we’re able to move that same mentality of helping other people within the community, rather than just our narrow organization that it’s that same concept. You’re not trying to help people so that you can continue to help them. You’re trying to help them so that they can be able to contribute even more for the rest of us.


Absolutely. That’s what we’re focused on and that’s why we focus on outcomes. And there are so many inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies in the way we have structured a lot of our punishment in society. And this is not something that just came out of one administration. This is like decades of poor policymaking and a lot of it was the War on Drugs that basically penalized small time drug users and drug mules who basically were pedaling small amounts of drugs. We talk about Geneva Cooley, who was this bit time drug mule who was thrown into prison in Alabama for lifetime without parole. This is a woman – nonviolent crime – and she already had spent about 20 years in prison.

Finally, because things have been loosening up, there was a lawyer at a local university who said, ‘Wait. This is just ridiculous.’ And on her behalf, petitioned the courts and the courts said, ‘Yeah, she’s paid her dues. Nonviolent crime, no attempted murder or anything.’ And so she was released. Meanwhile, you have basically the Sacklers who triggered this huge opioid epidemic that led to the deaths of thousands and tens of thousands of Americans and made $11 billion off of it. And nothing happened to them. Because they have such good lawyers that they can hire, probably very little will happen to them. None of them will stand trial and they’ll give a little pittance of their entire empire to help pay for it, but they will get off scot-free.

So, if we’re talking about individual responsibility and if we’re talking about punishment, let’s put punishment where punishment is due. And, so we’ve got a real double standard.


A lot of your solutions are what people would describe as liberal. But I found it interesting that a lot of the values that you discuss in the book are what people would describe as conservative. The idea of strengthening our institutions, including marriage. You mentioned how marriage keeps many people on a very focused path. What steps are necessary to strengthen and encourage an institution like marriage in the United States?


So again, we focus on outcomes. So, whether that means that we’re liberal or conservative, it’s because we’re focusing on outcomes and what are the best, most efficient methods to bring about those outcomes. And one of them is called the success sequence, which is you graduate from high school, you get a job and you marry first before you have kids. That’s the success sequence. And there’s been a lot of research that has said of people who follow that success sequence 98% are fine. Of people who don’t follow the success sequence it’s the total opposite. I mean, most of them just are struggling.

So, I think the key there is that it’s not whether or not we have a judgment about marriage it’s just that in two income earning households, it’s much easier to get by because financial constraints really can cause a lot of problems. When you have two people to manage kids, you tag team. Again, it’s getting back to what you mentioned earlier about corporations, you build teams. Well, a team of two is much more able to cope than a team of one. And a team of one, a single mother, a single parent, that is really hard. I mean, how do you get a job when you’ve got like a two-year-old at home who isn’t yet in preschool. What do you do? And if you can’t afford to pay someone to look after that two-year-old, what are you supposed to do?

It’s just like pretty much logistics and so that’s why marriage has become a very important, and convenient actually, a good solution to raising kids.


Well, it’s not just about the income though. It’s also the sense of having somebody on your side. Working as a team because it’s not about being married for the sake of having it on paper that you’re married. If it’s a destructive marriage, that’s not going to be beneficial.




Yeah. The idea of having a true partnership with somebody that when you’re down, that you’ve got somebody to help build you back up. You give an example of somebody in the book that was really struggling in their life. And it was their partner that helped lift them up and be able to get them the treatment that they needed and be able to help them keep their life together in a way that their life would have completely unraveled.


Absolutely. This is an example of how marriage really helps. So, Dave and April were sort of going out. They were not married. They were just boyfriend and girlfriend for a long, long time. And partly April was just nervous about Dave because he was an alcoholic. I mean, he was trying to get off of it, but he would every once in a while, get into these drinking bouts and it would scare her to death. She would take their child away, just like leave the home, when he was in one of those alcoholic rages. And it got to be more and more frequent. And so, she wouldn’t marry him. Finally, he ended up getting ticketed, a speeding ticket and he was so angry at this police cop who stopped him.

And funny enough, the cop said, ‘You don’t know it now, but this is for your own good.’ So, he threw Dave in jail and April, at first, said she wasn’t going to go down right away to bail him out. She said, let him stew for a night. So, the next day she went back and paid bail, but he still had to face the court and thankfully the judge said, ‘Look, you got to go into treatment because, this is your umpteenth time that you’re driving under the influence and this is just not good for anybody.’ And so he couldn’t afford treatment for alcoholism. It was extremely expensive. And basically, you know, what was he going to… what was going to happen?

So, April who had a steady job and had healthcare did the most remarkable thing. She married Dave, because once she married Dave, he could go on her health care and he could get the treatment than he needed. And that’s exactly what happened. She was a heroin. I mean, unbelievable what she did. It was an act of courage because she had to say, ‘I’ve decided first of all to really marry this guy and to spend my life with him’ and basically commit to try and to turn him around so that they can have a life together. And that’s exactly what she did.

And they are doing much better now. Of course, everybody’s hurt by the pandemic, but Dave built back up his kennel. He’s doing well. He’s really good at running the kennel. He’s very diligent and good with his customers and he’s back on track and it’s amazing. Again, an example of how marriage can really help in a situation where you’ve got some of these situations of despair.


Now Cheryl, one of the things that I really liked about your book was that it tried to look at a lot of these social programs not so much as expenses, but as actual investments into people. There’s a passage where you write, “Outlays for people may seem like entitlements, but actually are long-term capital investments in the country’s human infrastructure.” How does our perspective change when we think in terms of social investments, rather than entitlements?


Well, first of all, they really have to be investments. Like I would not call putting someone in jail and spending the money on jail, I would not call that an investment. I would call   diversion programs that take people who were destined for jail, but they have an underlying addiction, and putting them into an addiction treatment program. I would call that program an investment.

And a perfect example that we talk about is Women in Recovery, which is based in Oklahoma, Tulsa, Oklahoma. And basically, what they do is they work with the health care authorities. They work with the drug court authorities, the legal system, to basically determine women who have an underlying addiction, which helped fuel their crime. And they say, ‘well, this person might be perfect for drug treatment because we can put them in this program for one and a half to two years. They come out with an apprenticeship and with a job and then they are again contributing tax paying member of society. And that’s exactly what it does.

So that’s an investment because it’s two years, it’s a lot of money. You got to fully take this person, you’ve got to hire doctors and all sorts of medical professionals to help them wean off the drugs. Then there’s also the therapy sessions, huge amounts of therapy are required. Then there’s the retraining. You’re basically taking someone and you’re just starting almost from scratch: Household finances, how to manage a household, how to raise kids, how to treat kids so that you’re not going to pass on the abusive intergenerational abusiveness that many families go through and get them instead out of poverty, how to focus on education. All of this has to go through this training program to retrain these people and they do it extremely well.

They’ve done it for years and they’ve saved, in the time that they have actually had this program, it’s about seven, eight or nine years by now, they basically saved the local community $70 million. So this is a return on investment that yields a huge amount of savings.


And of course, it’s not just about the economic returns.


Oh, right. You’re lifting these Americans up and they’re actually starting to contribute a huge amount to their local communities. And so, it’s a win-win, but it takes that huge outlay of initial capital investment. But if we look at the way a company looks at an outlay of capital to bring in a return later on, I think that’s a very valuable way of looking at it. And it’s a very productive way of looking.


If we look at how a company looks at expenses and investments, expenses are something you’re trying to reduce. Investments, you’re focused on the outcomes of what that investment delivers.




Yeah. And so, I mean, I think it blends in well with the book and again, it also comes back to giving people a sense of dignity in the end, which that’s something you really emphasize. The idea that work is much more important than just the paycheck, than just a social program to increase their income. It’s about who they are as a person and what it is that they’re capable of contributing.


Absolutely. I think that one thing that people don’t realize when they say, ‘Oh, that person just wants to collect subsidies is that so much of ourselves and our identity are tied up in our job, in our work. And so, you know, if you’re a Postal worker, you take pride in being part of the USPS, which you know, is helping people vote in an election. You take great pride in that. And I think that that’s really important that even those, you know, who educated people think of as manual labors, they take pride.

I mean, even during the pandemic, essential workers, they took pride in that we were able to keep these grocery stores open so that you could get your food. And those on the front lines working, we have to recognize that the working class is such an important, essential component to our overall society and we just don’t treat them well. And we don’t, care for them the way that we should. And all members of the upper-class, we just don’t spend enough time trying to think of how we can improve society so that they can actually also have a better life. And that’s important because they are essential workers. They keep our society functioning in a way that we recognize we were not essential workers. We could sit at home and do zoom calls. And I think that’s really important for a lot of the upper-class to recognize.


The solutions that you offer often lean towards the left.  They’re programs that oftentimes liberals or Democrats can easily embrace, or at least potentially would embrace. But the values that you’re talking about, oftentimes reflect conservative values, and conservative principles: Building institutions, strengthening institutions, giving people a sense of hard work and a sense of identity through that. Is there a path for conservative politicians to embrace these solutions or maybe similar ones to the ones you outlined?


I think there absolutely is. And again, I don’t think of myself as liberal or conservative. I think of it as what is evidence-based outcomes that actually we can subscribe to. Because I think that when you have evidence, randomized controlled trials, the same kind of methodology that we’re using now to confirm our vaccines that we’re taking. Those are really important for showing that this is a program that works or doesn’t work. And so, I know that there are a lot of people who are trying to create randomized controlled trials in the social field. It’s not always easy, because to randomize some of these things, it’s like you give drug treatment to this person, but not to that person and see what happens.

Well, you can do that, but at some point, you’re denying people drug treatment. And so, sometimes it gets a little bit sticky. But if you can show that there’s evidence, that a program works or doesn’t work, then it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. You know, I think that that’s what really ultimately should determine whether people get behind a program – Republicans or Democrats. And I don’t think that it’s helpful to actually say, ‘Oh, this is a liberal program or this is conservative program’ because I think that people should focus on outcomes again, on what works, and what doesn’t work and be able to measure it.

And then you can say, ‘Look, we know this works and it makes America stronger.’ So, you know, what is your criticism of it and what are the roadblocks to it? Because if it’s clear that it’s a better program that will make America stronger, we should do it. So, I think it’s more helpful to focus on the evidence than it is on whether it’s conservative or liberal. And I think that when you try and de-politicize it, it makes it a little bit easier for people to stand behind something.


It is important to note though that there can be genuine disagreements between values, but what your book does is recognize the fact that these are values that we all share.


Right. I mean, I think sometimes we frame them in different ways or the two sides come at them from different backgrounds and from different origins. But I do think that both Republicans and Democrats want America to be strong.

Key Links

Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof

Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope – PBS Documentary Presented by Show of Force

Follow Sheryl on Twitter @WuDunn

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