WHY: “This will be hard for readers to stop thinking about.
“Life expectancy in the US has decreased for three years in a row (which didn’t happen for the previous 100 years); a fact that hits close to home for Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists and husband-and-wife authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. In Kristof’s farming hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, where his family still has deep ties, a quarter of his former classmates have died early deaths from addiction, suicide, and accidents. The authors set out here to investigate why the US lags behind, sometimes far behind, many other countries in aspects of health, education, safety, and well-being, and why, for many families, things are worse than they were a generation ago.
“Moving from the micro to the macro, they tell the stories of their Yamhill friends and others they’ve met across the country, sharing their photos as well as studies and figures that deepen readers’ understanding. While they cover policy failures of the last half-century, they also affirm that we’re no longer dealing in Republican or Democratic issues, but issues of Americans’ very survival. Highlighting successful small-scale programs like Tulsa’s rehabilitative Women in Recovery program, they emphasize that there are potentially nationwide solutions.”
—Annie Bostrom, in a starred review for BOOKLIST
“This essential, clear-eyed account provides worthy solutions to some of America’s most complex socioeconomic problems. Kristof and WuDunn turn a compassionate lens on the failed state of working-class American communities in this stark, fluidly written portrait.” —PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
“An ardent and timely case for taking a multi-pronged approach to ending working-class America’s long decline.” —KIRKUS REVIEWS
“Kristof and WuDunn bring a human face to issues such as drug addiction, incarceration, family dysfunction, and declining prospects for employment.”
—Caren Nichter, LIBRARY JOURNAL
. . . . . FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE BOOK:
The American economy has dazzled the world and its stock markets have created great riches, but the median American household is actually poorer in net worth today than it was in 2000. Median wages for the majority of the population that lacks a college degree are significantly lower today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, than they were back in 1979. Gallup has been asking Americans once a month for decades if they are “satisfied” or “dissatisfied” with the way things are going in the United States, and for the last fifteen years a majority has steadily answered “dissatisfied.” Gallup reported in 2019 that even as the economy grew steadily, “higher levels of stress, anger and worry nudged Americans’ overall Negative Experience Index to 35 — three points higher than any previous score.” Gallup concluded, “In fact, the levels of negative emotions in the past several years are even higher than during the U.S. recession years.” Gallup found that Americans were among the most stressed populations in the world, tied with Iranians and even more stressed than Venezuelans.
Life expectancy continues to rise in most of the rest of the industrialized world, but in the United States it has dropped for three years in a row — for the first time in a century. As we’ll see, American kids today are 55 percent more likely to die by the age of nineteen than children in the other rich countries that are members of the OECD, the club of industrialized nations. America now lags behind its peer countries in health care and high-school graduation rates while suffering greater violence, poverty and addiction. This dysfunction damages all Americans: it undermines our nation’s competitiveness, especially as growing economies like China’s are fueled by much larger populations and by rising education levels, and may erode the well-being of our society for decades to come. The losers are not just those at the bottom of society, but all of us. For America to be strong, we must strengthen all Americans.