Stepping Out of My “Silo”: An Important Book on Poverty and Despair in Rural America

I read books that help me be less ignorant and see outside my “silo,” the way we are surrounded by like-minded people and ideas.  It makes it a great adventure to continually be learning about things, cultures, places or groups that I don’t know about or don’t understand.  And some time ago, I realized that I do not understand parts of my own country.

I just finished reading Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Tightrope: American’s Reaching for Hope. This husband-wife team is known for their coverage of China, such as China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power, and the book about women’s empowerment all over the world, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women.

Kristof and WuDunn acknowledge this was the most wrenching book for them to write as they returned to Nick’s home town, Yamhill, Oregon to chronicle what directions Nick’s former classmates have gone.

Casualties of economic shifts

Sadly, many of Nick’s former classmates are casualties of the shift away from manufacturing or logging that employed most people in this small town in rural Oregon. Thus some have fallen into alcoholism, opioids, homelessness, meth, suicide, and obesity and have died of “deaths of despair.”

This was an important read for me as I have been looking to understand the part of America that is saying, “You don’t understand… you aren’t listening. …you don’t seem to care that some Americans have been left behind.”

2008: 10,000,000 Americans lost their homes to foreclosure

People were left behind. In 2008, Wall Street got bailed out so the economy would not collapse, but no one helped the 10 million people who lost their homes due to foreclosures. Equally devastating, middle class wages have not kept up with the economy, they have stagnated. If wages had kept up with the economy, an average blue collar worker would be making $90,000/ year rather than $43,000. This may seem axiomatic… like a big “Well duh!” – But the effects of this income decline are profound. New York Times writer, David Brooks, asserts that decent wages and jobs would solve poverty in America. Kristof and WuDunn point out that it is not just market forces that determine prosperity or poverty. Government policies and programs have enormous impact. After World War !!, the GI Bill was a ticket out of poverty for many as it paid for a college education and helped finance a home loan.

What can be done?

Like Hillbilly Elegy, this book gave me a glimpse. But more importantly, Kristof and WuDunn make some solid proposals about what can be done:

~ They cite Ron Haskin’s and Isabel Sawhill’s three traditional rules for preventing poverty: graduate from high school; get and keep a full time job; and get married before you have kids. Only 2% who follow these “rules” or this “success sequence” live in poverty while 79% who ignore all of these “rules” live in poverty.

~ Thus Kristof and WuDunn admonish us to create policies and programs that encourage success. They lambast the United States for spending far more on prisons than education and social programs.

The Marshall Project states that our prison and jails costs American taxpayers $80 billion a year. The U.S. Department of Education found in July, 2016 that over the last three decades state and local spending on prisons and jails has increased at triple the rate of funding for public education for preschool through grade P-12 education.

~ We need to spend more money on job training programs than prisons.  We need to match job training to available jobs.

~ Likewise we need to do a better job helping everyone graduate from high school. WuDunn and Kristoff propose better apprenticeship and vocational programs in high school for those not on the college track that result in a job upon graduation.

~ Early childhood education helps at-risk kids and helps proactively. Early childhood education is much cheaper than prison. There was a good reason Head Start was at the heart of LBJ’s War on Poverty. I wondered if Head Start is present in rural America, and apparently Head Start has centers in 86 percent of America’s 1,760 rural counties.

~ Reduce unwanted pregnancies: WuDunn and Kristof advocate working with teenagers to make wise choices and have birth control available. The goal is to help more teenage young women stay on track, stay in school and thus be able to get good jobs.

~ Restore decent wages and decent jobs. How you do this is the source of an ideological battle.

~ Mentoring. And what can each of us do? The Tightrope authors encourage people to find a local program where you can mentor youth and help them harness their dreams rather than derailing; guide them through turmoil going on at home and make wise choices; and help them learn the necessary skills and develop their talents. Poverty is at the root of much of the despair and shouting in America. I was happy to find a book that helped me understand better, though I acknowledge I still have a long way to go. Can we bridge what so deeply divides America? Learning more about people outside my “silo” was a first step.

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