Nicholas Kristof, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and columnist for The New York Times, spoke at the University of Michigan’s “Real-World Perspectives on Poverty Solutions Speaker Series” Friday afternoon via YouTube livestream. His talk, “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” was hosted by Luke Shaefer, the Hermann and Amelie Kohn Professor of Social Justice and Social Policy in the School of Social Work and director of the Poverty Solutions Initiative. 

Sherly WuDunn, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and Kristof’s wife, co-wrote “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.” The book discusses the issues faced by working-class people living in rural areas of the United States such as drug abuse, child poverty and the lack of affordable health care. 

During his talk, Kristof questioned the individualist ideal that people can succeed as long as they work hard regardless of their environment. 

Kristof said the inspiration for his book came from his experiences growing up in a rural area of Oregon. When he found out that many of the people he used to know had died from drug abuse and suicide, he knew he wanted to write about rural poverty in the United States.

According to Kristof, he felt responsible for shedding light on this growing issue.

“There was some sense that we in the media had neglected this issue, which I felt a certain responsibility,” Kristof said. “I spent a lot of time reporting in Afghanistan and Iraq and those were important stories that deserve coverage, but it struck me that every two weeks more Americans die from these deaths and despair than 19 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I don’t think we gave that problem at home its due.”

Kristof responded to Shaefer’s question about how readers can draw hope from Kristof’s stories. 

“I think that today, in contrast to maybe 25 years ago, we really know what works to address these problems, partly because other countries have been effective in addressing them,” Kristof said. “We are not going to eliminate poverty or child poverty in America, but can we reduce it substantially? I think absolutely. The fact that other countries have been able to do that suggests to me that we have a toolbox that works, we certainly have the resources as a country — what we lack is the political will.”

Business senior Hope Crystal wrote in an email to The Daily that she agreed the quintessential “American Dream” is often unattainable and unrealistic. 

“Being in a middle-income bubble in the Midwest, I thought that anyone who worked hard could achieve the American Dream and get themselves out of poverty,” Crystal wrote. “… Although the American Dream is still possible I realized the reality that poverty is a continuous cycle for many as their environment does not give them opportunities to combat poverty.” 

Shaefer was joined at the event by Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy director for health. 

Gordon emphasized the importance of expanding mental health services during the pandemic and shifting people’s mentality on homelessness. He criticized the use of asset tests, which have come under fire for forcing people experiencing housing insecurity to show their bank accounts or prove their unemployment before receiving assistance. 

Drawing on her experiences working in Baltimore, Khaldun emphasized the importance of expanding health care. Khaldun said Black women are three times more likely to die during pregnancy than white people and Black people have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We really have to think differently about poverty, health, understanding their interconnectedness, understanding interconnectedness with race, which you touch on in the book as well, and then move forward with policies that really achieve optimal health for everyone, no matter where you may start,” Khaldun said. “I remember when I was in Baltimore we talked a lot about your zip code. You could literally walk two blocks away and your life expectancy drops by 20 years.”

Kristof said it is important to commit to little changes that work together to make a larger social impact. He used the decrease in auto fatality rates as an example, because the change was caused by small policies like using seat belts, putting lights on roads and prohibiting drunk driving. 

“No one thing moved the needle so much, but by a process of relentless empiricism and a process that was not ideological and was really driven by science and evidence, we were able to have a fantastic impact on the well-being of Americans and saved an awful lot of lives,” Kristof said. “I wish we could replicate that commitment to evidence and science and depoliticize issues of poverty to the same degree.”

Daily News Contributor Caroline Wang can be reached at wangca@umich.edu.

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