Are My Friends’ Deaths Their Fault or Ours?

We need to move from pointing fingers to offering helping hands.

Comments: 198

  1. My ex-wife and two of my four children went through the agonies of alcoholism and have amazingly come out the other side as sober, productive individuals. The other two children are now confirmed non-alcoholics (who still attend AA or NA meetings almost daily, my son even after 24 years). I am thankful every day for these outcomes in my family and realize that without much change one or all of them might not be here now. Your column is spot-on.

  2. @Bob Brown I'm so glad your family came through that nightmare; you're an inspiration to so many others struggling with dependencies. As I see it, we humans screw up. We do dumb things. Often we turn to alcohol or drugs as consolation when we're disappointed in ourselves -- and then, when the social narrative is harsh and condemnatory, that only exacerbates the disappointment and desire to escape. So we need norms, but we can offer helping hands rather than pointing fingers.

  3. As always, thanks for the compassionate eloquence that has been your trademark as a journalist. Correct me if I am wrong, but did not the USA pre-Reagan begin a series of programs that made inroads into these issues? Is it not still possible to reverse course, decrease military spending in a way that will not precipitate a variation of 2008, and reinstitute public policies that incentivize compassion? Overturn Citizens United so that $$ are not squandered trying to buy elections and redraft laws that increase the prospects for corporate compassion by giving them tax breaks for policies and programs that support workers, particularly with regarding to mental well-being? All of this is possible—but only if we somehow survive this crisis of cruelty. Thanks for being on the front lines of this long-overdue effort.

  4. @Nicholas Kristof My day to day existence for almost half a century was one of constant emotional pain. I believed my options to be alcohol or death. Drink ‘saved’ me until it looked as if it would kill me. I was fortunate. Some spark inside of me said that I wasn’t ready to die. I was given and accepted the gift of sobriety. Today? Life can still be difficult. One of the differences is I know that there are more then two options out there. I struggle, but I’m still trying. I know that you can’t force someone to live a sober life. However, as a society we can make sure that people know that addiction is not a moral or character defect. It is a mostly treatable disease. Society can then offer treatments and viable life options for the newly sober.

  5. In Oregon, the story is a bit more complex than has been depicted. The misfortune befalling many of Mr. Kristof's classmates has taken place in an area that, concurrent with some decline, became known for producing some of the world's best wine, as well as artisanal cheeses, nuts, cuisine, art and crafts. Along with "outsiders" from Portland, Silicon Valley and, yes, Mexico who have been the beneficiaries, I'm sure Nicholas also knows business and land owners who have done quite well over the past several decades.

  6. @backfull Yes, that's correct. The area has seen the emergence of some great wineries producing outstanding wines served at the White House. But just as there are two Americas, there are two Yamhills. I'm thrilled for the successful new businesses, but we can't forget those like my old school mates. The success of some doesn't mitigate the cataclysm for others.

  7. @backfull Surely you're aware that rural Oregon is a good example of the tightrope he describes -- many fall, a few make it across the abysss. With a few exceptions, like my city, our schools are... troubled. Social support systems are vestigial, money is in short supply. Those bounties of which you speak are sparks in the darkness. As a sociologist, I agree with Kristof that we need a systemic, humanist fix (in a state where the largely Republican minority threatens to shut down the legislature over modest climate protection, let alone offer real support to the people)

  8. @backfull Wonderful creative artisans! With taste and hard work and a large infusion of capital, well who wouldn't succeed? Plenty of people don't succeed even with all these assets. Not every one is gifted and financed. This article is about their tragedies.

  9. The "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" meme is cruel, harsh, and outrageously selfish. But when it's cloaked in the dignified robe of "personal responsibility," it gains enough cachet that more people feel comfortable adopting it. After all, who can oppose the concept of personal responsibility, especially when it comes to life & death? As if personal responsibility and compassion cannot both exist simultaneously. For years, AA has referred to alcoholism as a disease. After a while the AMA and the APA agreed. Many still say that this absolves the sufferer of responsibility for recovering, and yet nothing could be further from the truth. Acknowledging the fact that addiction is a disease opens the door to recovery - once someone admits they have this disease, then they can begin the process of recovery. Consider diabetes: what if society concluded that it was a moral failure, caused by people refusing to control their sugar intake? Well, for one, I would have diabetes, since I love sweets. (I don't.) But most importantly, how many people would die of diabetes after hating themselves enough not to do anything to change their lifestyle? Instead, we recognize diabetes as a disease, treat it as such, and offer a path to recovery for those who suffer. Why can't we do that with addictions? In many ways, we Americans are as bad as the Taliban in our superstitions and adherence to cruel, outdated mores. And it's tragic to see all the human suffering this causes.

  10. @TLMischler I think the analogy to disease is right, and it's one we use in "Tightrope." Yet what's striking is that fewer than 1 in 5 Americans with a dependency gets treatment. Imagine if only 1 in 5 Americans with diabetes got treatment! And drug treatment actually saves money many times over, yet we refuse to fund it.

  11. @Nicholas Kristof - It seems other countries far less wealthy than ours have hit on some good ideas for treating addiction. Portugal seems to be one of them. The U.S. has grown up with a superiority complex and it seems we're too self satisfied to learn anything from other countries' successes, or failures either for that matter.

  12. To take the diabetes analogy a step further.... our society could easily say that adult onset diabetics need to get their acts together, pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The great majority of diabetics are overweight and could get their diabetes under control, if not cured, by just losing weight and becoming more active. Should we deny them medication, insulin, etc because they have no willpower? Of course not. We treat them and try to teach them how to lead a healthy lifestyle. Like addiction, theirs is a real disease that individual behavior plays a huge role. We don’t blame diabetics for their disease. And yet, the stigma on the illness of addiction is huge.

  13. Thank you for writing an article that exactly fits with my course objectives for this week in my Social Welfare Policy course at Ohio University. We are the most individualistic nation of all the industrialized, democratic nations on earth. As such, we maintain this myth that everyone should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" and they will make it on our own. As you describe, destructive barriers and cruel policies have prevented many people from fulfilling their potential to a great cost to society. There is so much more to say about this failing. I want to add one more comment. Please, please write about the welfare cliff that keeps people in poverty and truly harms everyone. Hopefully your voice exposing how our social welfare policies push people down can raise awareness and initiate real change. The stories are heartbreaking.

  14. @Solveig As someone pointed out recently in a comment, "lifting yourself by your bootstraps" is physically impossible and means something that can't be done. Or it did mean that, until it got misread.

  15. @Thomas Zaslavsky : honestly, I think that interpretation is just wrong. I believe the saying simply means "you put on your boots, and in that action -- getting dressed, ready to go out to work" -- you are rejecting lying about in bed all day, whinging. Most failed people like the Knapps are not even really trying to make their lives better -- preferring the euphoria of drugs and getting high.

  16. Thank you for this important, compassionate and insightful column. The meanness and cruelty plaguing individual lives affects all of us and, as you pointed out, has economic and social consequences for the country as a whole.

  17. My daughter's best friend from childhood died at age 25 from an overdose. She was bright, funny, loved animals and human underdogs, and was a talented artist. She was a petite force of nature. She struggled with addiction that started when she had a back injury and a relative shared "extra" prescription opioids. Turned out that our bright,funny, loving friend also had an addictive personality and even the bond of love between her and her children couldn't save her. At age 20, she made a mistake and it changed her life - ended it really. When she died, so many friends and family members thought she "deserved" it and was "weak" and "just an addict." What she deserved was meaningful treatment not the "find Jesus and He will save you" recovery center that was all she could afford. Her kids lost their mom and we all lost a friend who could have contributed so much. She was a victim who needed real help, not judgement and platitudes. "I burn the candle at both ends. It will not last the night. But ah my foes and hh my friends. It gives such a lovely sight." She was lovely and innocent - and we'll never see her again.

  18. @Larisa I'm so sorry for your loss. Every state has treatment alternatives for those who do not have insurance. I'm sorry your friend was unable to find or use one. I lost a beautiful client at age 33 because she refused to attend an inpatient program and leave her 4 year old son behind. A few months later, she died and he was left forever without his mother. It's tragic.

  19. @Barbara yes, every state may indeed have treatment alternatives, but let's not forget that many of those patients may not have access to reliable private or public transportation.

  20. @Barbara Unfortunately, in Alabama, treatment options are sorely lacking. She tried one in-state, had to go out of state later, and finally ended up in a "faith-based" one near the end of her life. At the funeral, the director of this "faith-based" program gave a speech that essentially said "she accepted Jesus before she left, so our program was successful." It was all I could do not to cause a scene. We got the news of her death while at a vigil at our local synagogue for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Her death was no less of a tragedy, but too many people saw it as just her being "irresponsible."

  21. Thank you! This is a great article. Let's keep the conversation going!

  22. Yesterday, a friend told me about her great nephew, now a high school junior who is particularly gifted in math skills: he has been offered a college scholarship, encouraged to skip his senior year and enter college as a sophomore. That means he will skip many if not most liberal arts coursework - including subjects like social studies, the arts, anthropology, sociology, English, writing, and literature courses. This educational pathway is, in my opinion, what often creates narrow-minded and short-sighted and intellectually minimally aware and ignorant - the kind of people who hold on to those "boot strap" ideas for lack of anything more imaginative or creative.

  23. @PJH : while I agree that high school is about more than academics -- it has social and emotional benefits -- and 16-17 may be too young for college! -- are you seriously saying the brilliant top young students, with excellent grades, are the ones who are narrowed minded, short sighted and intellectually unaware? REALLY?

  24. What a heartbreaking account of this family. And we can be sure that the Knapps’ tragedy was a microcosm of the lost lives taken daily. I am almost reluctant to assign culpability in such situations and I would instead focus on what would help these pathologies. Any soul taken by addiction is one too many.

  25. Well Said Mr. Kristoff. And even within the choice narrative there is further nuance. People make choices of the options they see available to them. By limiting their choices, we force them into an untenable situation. Suicide, witting or unwitting, is the response of those who have run out of choices and see no hope. As a further, and maybe snarky aside, how many of those who made those nasty judgements still smoke tobacco, or drive too fast, or don't use seatbelts, or drive drunk. How many have made thoughtless comments and actions that harm someone. Let they who is without sin cast the first stone

  26. @Anthony Tedesco Yes! That's exactly why we chose the metaphor of a "tightrope" as the title for our book. Wealthy Americans meander through life on a broad, smooth path, making it less likely that they'll stumble and limiting the consequences if they do. On the other hand, for tens of millions like the Knapps, life is a tightrope. Some do make it across, and bravo to them. But inevitably some fall, and when that happens let's not try to assign blame; let's just offer help.

  27. @Nicholas Kristof While money sometimes helps smooth the way, for addicts it can make the path more treacherous. I allowed a "trust fund baby" to enter the halfway house I ran only after we agreed that he would have a tiny allowance, commensurate with what other men there had, while he lived with us. It worked for him, while having had money or living on his own too soon would have made for an easy relapse because he could buy almost unlimited cocaine. While those with less money may have more challenges, it's not a cakewalk for the rich either.

  28. @Barbara Addiction is always a tightrope for the rich, the poor and all in between. However, the rich at least have treatment options that no longer exist for the poor and most of the in between folk. In the 60's and 70's we had many treatment programs for the non-rich, but by the end of the 70's most of them were gone, replaced by $40,000 a year prison cells.

  29. Very lucid account although rather somber. But knowing the flaw we can correct it. Observers from outside remark that in all truth, the U.S. is lagging behind most developed countries in Education and Health Care, but one word resumes everything: inequality which is becoming the landmark. What's most perturbing however is the fact that people affected by the degrading condition of U.S. as a country, are voting governments that push on the wrong side, clearly against themselves; not only Bush (W) one but worst, this last one under such an incompetent 'business' (pseudo) reality show entertainer. What happened to that G.O.P. is everybody's question. From Canada we look mostly towards Europe and are impressed by the determination of their leaders and the quality of their selection process: just look at the number of women in decision's levels today... 4 PM, the President of the European Commission, and last but not least Kristalina Georgieva the new Head of the IMF; we expect a lot from her denouncing inequality and are waiting for her initial speech this coming jan 20th at Davos. U.S. looks absent minded...

  30. Absolutely on point and now being promoted most effectively by Andrew Yang. His candidacy needs to be taken seriously.

  31. While Mr. Kristof makes some good points about personal responsibility, I would love to hear from the interviewees themselves about why they took the paths they did. The only reference I saw was that the death of a father led his daughters to start drugs. I lost my father when I was a child. I grew up in a fairly poor, working class family. No one went to college, or even considered it. I was shuffled around to grandparents and other family members, and yet I didn't turn to drugs. Now, I'm in my 60's, and a person of color. In those years, we were told that failing was our fault, and that we should "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps", so I did. I put myself through college and law school. No "affirmative action" breaks where I went, either. Fast forward to today - many whites are extremely resentful of my success, and think I've "taken" something that was rightfully theirs, especially white men. I wouldn't be surprised to hear some of this sentiment expressed by the people reference in this essay. So I would be interested to hear how much of their situations they attribute to "bad breaks" and how much they attribute to their own failings. I had every disadvantage one could think of, and my situation was certainly harder, at least as a child, than those who have been interviewed here. Now, this comment may sound "cruel" to some, but after more than a half century of being lectured to by whites, perhaps it can be understood why I am not the most sympathetic person.

  32. @Henry Hurt Given that you have walked in the shoes of the disadvantaged by birth, one would think you would have a bit more space in your heart. Being rightfully proud of what one has accomplished does not require one to lose the capacity for empathy or hesitant to lend an unconditional hand to those less fortunate. I am completely in agreement with what Mr. Kristof writes here and look forward to reading his book.

  33. @Henry Hurt Your comment doesn't sound cruel, just a reflection of the reality you've lived. Thank you. I have a friend who grew up with an alcoholic father who stumbled from one menial job to another. They lived in 12 different houses in 12 years, and she told herself constantly "there has to be something better." Even when we hear the stories, we may not have the answers. But they are starting points.

  34. @Henry Hurt - Mr. Hurt, you raise some of the same questions that came to my mind after reading the initial story. I've thought about it a lot since reading about the Knapps. I have no answer. We truly don't know what goes on in anyone's psyche. You possessed some gene, or some personal quality that kept you going. Great story of your achievement - thanks for telling it. I'm white but was raised during the Great Depression. My Dad was the first in his family to go to college in 1939? Went to a private religious college, was married and I was a child, and he worked his way. What inspired him to go to college? Government can surely help to get a foothold, or to provide boots with straps, but in addition, I can't help but think there is some nugget of character, or whatever one wants to call it, that nudges us in the right direction. Kudos to you!

  35. Those who make callous comments fail to consider several factors, including the changing social environment and genetic loading of addiction. Some try hard but can't stay sober/clean. I saw this in treatment programs that I developed and managed. One man had been in treatment more than 20 times. The longest he ever stayed sober was in our program, but shortly after he left, he relapsed yet again. Addiction is a very complex disease, not a moral weakness or failing.

  36. @Barbara It is a disease, but since there is no pill or simple treatment to cure it, it requires a lot of effort of the ill person, along with the help from others, to remedy it. Without the will and discipline of the afflicted, nothing will ever improve. Very hard, but still true.

  37. @Barbara Addiction is a direct result of creating trophy self-images through faulty upbringing. We embed the emotionally challenged belief of each one being the best. Naturally we expect more from our selves than we are capable of. This leads to depression and drugs. We need to focus on developing emotional health. Even moral values are emotional health values! I am hoping Nicholas will take my wisdom formula and make it mainstream. I am getting old and tired. I want to hand over my projects to an activist group like the NY Times.

  38. @Barbara : TWENTY TIMES -- at $30k to $50K a pop -- and you want government and taxpayers to subsidize that? and it DID NOT EVEN WORK!

  39. The negative comments in response to Mr. Kristof's excerpt from "Tightrope" about the Knapp family were chilling. Yes, "I'm sure Nicholas also knows business and land owners who have done quite well over the past several decades." But at whose expense, please? We have strayed very far from the days that corporate America even pretended to care about its workers -- or that some of those workers had the strength to care about their neighbors. Research shows that health and income inequity contribute significantly to "death by zipcode." We need to rediscover the importance of community connection and mutual support. Who among us dares to casually dismiss families like the Knapps and label their lives the result of "natural selection"? The only time we ever seem to learn is when "s..." finally happens to US, and one day it may well be our turn. Meanwhile, let us "love mercy, do justice and walk humbly." And read "Tightrope"!

  40. I nearly cried when I tread he callously harsh comments that you quoted about the Knapp family. I don't know whose family has escaped human suffering. One would think that our common human condition would give rise to not only compassion but empathy. There go I except for the grace of God.

  41. In the First World War, the soldiers who broke under the strain of the horrors of trench warfare were accused of ‘lacking moral fiber’, and some were shot by their own side. The world Mr Kristoff’s former classmates inhabits has also ground them down, instilled despair, and inspired the same intellectually barren unempathic responses. How sad to see a cohort with a mindset more comfortable in 1920 than 2020. Presumably they would bring the world back there if they could...

  42. If a child is not adequately invested in from the moment it is conceived until it reaches kindergarten the chances are the child will never catch up with the kids nurtured generously. A kid that falls behind is likely to develop a wall of insecurity that dooms them to failure. You speak of government investment without suggesting who pays, which is a big part of the problem. We have a very powerful moneyed class that, at least as a group, often see social programs as punishment to their success. At the very least, they think they can use their money more efficiently than the government to address these issues, but somehow no mater what percentage of the nations wealth ends up in their hands, they never create the programs to help these kids nearly adequately. When we get to the matter of government programs, states never seem able, no matter how liberal, to find the resources to compensate the kids who happen to be born poor- through pre-school and other early interventions. How much did taxpayers spend to keep the convicted Knapp boy in prison for 17 years? How much did our economy lose in the lost productivity and creativity of his siblings? The problem is that the investment takes almost a generation to pay for itself, until then we have to pay for both the symptoms and the solutions at the same time to permanently solve the problem. That would require long term thinking.

  43. Thank you for the insightful article. The pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mantra in our country is a myth. Our billionaires, from Bezos to Trump to Gates and Buffet, were all the beneficiaries of business loan breaks and clever tax loopholes. Others like Phil Knight, took advantage of cheap overseas labor, yet these people are worshipped in our country. It's time, America, to put away your imaginary bootstraps and truly help others.

  44. Nicholas Kristof and I are the same age. And I also lived in Yamhill as a young child (it’s unlikely our paths ever crossed, since my family moved to Portland when I was five years old). I followed these articles with fascination, since I feel like I “knew“ the people he writes about. I try to be compassionate about people in these situations, but I find myself leaning a little more into the “personal responsibility“ camp. Growing up, almost all of the males in my family had substance abuse issues, except for me (by far, the youngest). I could have easily gone down that path but chose not to. One of my brothers made a conscious decision after he got divorced at 30 years old, to just give up and “become a drunk“; to intentionally emulate one of our older brothers. I agree that education, opportunity, healthcare, etc., are important aspects to these issues. But I honestly don’t think that if many of the people in my background had been handed a great education or great opportunities, they would have taken it.

  45. Nothing says ‘genteel’ quite like ‘social Darwinism’. No one is responsible for the circumstances of their birth, and ‘luck’ is something that only exists in the minds of those fortunate enough to have never suffered any actual problems. The problem with ‘Common Sense’, is that it’s not mandatory reading.

  46. @ubique Exactly. I keep thinking of Gov. Ann Richards who famously encapsulated the sense of entitlement that comes when you're lucky at birth: "Born on third base and thinks he hit a triple."

  47. I've always very much appreciated your thoughtfulness and consideration in general, but in particular, with your columns re the Knapp family. It's unfortunate that people feel the need to make negative comments re your childhood friends. In my opinion, it shows a lack of empathy and their own reaction to the thought that "there but for the Grace of God go I". I do want to mention that capitalism was never really "inclusive" per se. Soldiers of color who fought in WWII somehow never benefited from the GI Bill and were often red lined by realtors, being directed to the poorer, harsher neighborhoods. Capitalism needs capitalists and it needs those who bring them capital through their hard work. We seemed to be moving in the direction of more inclusiveness up through the 1970s. A certain election in 1980 most definitely put a halt to that and the whole "pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps" became quite popular. Yes, each one of us has personal responsibility but these negative critics who want to blame the victims might consider the possibility of their own privilege and open their eyes to the fact that it has never been an even playing field and until we rectify that, we can't compare one person's narrative with another's.

  48. I agree that we, as a nation, need to be more empathetic toward others and spend much, much more offering helping hands. "There but for the grace of God go I..." That being said, I think your auto analogy is a poor one. Yes, we should help and educate everyone of all ages that we can, and at the same time we should build the best automobiles, appliances, etc. that we can. The devil is always in the "judgments": where does environment, genes, social narratives, etc. stop and where does personal responsibility start? I don't know the answer, but I'll suggest another car analogy ... weather doesn't cause accidents; rather, people not driving defensively for the conditions causes accidents. Education will lesson the number of car accidents, and education will lesson the number of poor personal decisions. Time to elect an 'education' president ...

  49. Reading these comments, knowing the people I do in my life, and being an observer of people, leads me to say that there seem to be three kinds of people. There are those who had a great family life with kind and supportive parents, sufficiencies of everything, and good educational opportunities who turned out ok and know that it was the privilege and luck of their circumstances that caused their blessed life. There are those who had a terrible environment with a broken or dysfunctional family who had to struggle and, yes, work hard to get food, education and jobs yet managed to turn out ok and know that it was good people along the way that helped, as well as a lot of just plain luck that led to their success. Then there are people who succeeded who had all the blessings of education, food, home and family and stability, or who overcame dysfunction and instability with hard work and the kismet of good luck and help along the way, and who think because their lives are good that everyone should be able to achieve this no matter what their circumstance or the barrier that is placed in their way. This last group is naive, ignorant of what others really go through, and cruel in their lack of care. That so many consider themselves Christian is sad. Jesus wept.

  50. @Wende Coincidentally, your excellent comment (particularly re. the "last group") appears as I am visiting with relatives out of state. Nice people, active seniors, who attend church every Sunday, and consider themselves "good Christians." But I hear them criticize -- condemn, actually -- those that have not succeeded because they "didn't try hard enough." They were fortunate, as was I, but now resent "the others" in our society. "Christian charity" or Christian hypocrisy?

  51. @Wende-I'm all for people succeeding because we understand and invest, as a nation, in a social safety net big enough to catch those who may not get the support they need at home.

  52. @Wende There is a name for that last group of people-- the GOP, Greedy Old Party.

  53. We Canadians mustn’t be self-righteous when we compare ourselves to our southern neighbor, but Canada generally have a more developed sense of the need for collective social action. We are puzzled by the reluctance of many Americans to see healthcare for all as something government shouldn’t provide as an investment of tax dollars in the public good. For most of us it’s a no-brainer: taxes fund national defense, a national highway system, a justice system – why not the healthcare system? It might be easier for Americans to accept tax-funded healthcare for all if folks accepted Kristoff’s argument: like poverty, most health problems are not self-inflicted and even when they are, imposing a condemnatory moral judgment on who gets and doesn’t get tax-funded care is a moral judgment that much of the world abandoned a hundred years ago. I‘m embarrassed to say this, but in Canada (and other nations), many of us now see much of American society as primitive, morally duplicitous and brutal, despite the brilliant points of ethical and civil responsibility we also see in our neighbor. But we also know that many Americans are also embarrassed by this toxic primitivism clawing away in the lap of their great nation. And yes - we Canadians have our own retrograde toxicities clawing away at our lap too.

  54. @John Butler - Hey Neighbor! My son married a wonderful Canadian woman, and he now claims dual citizenship, and Canada is their home. I love Canada and the Canadians I've met. Out of the nearly 330 million people that live here there are some "deplorables" - maybe even as many as the population of Canada. Please don't judge all of us by the "news" you read or hear. There are millions of us (more than the entire Canadian population) who think just like you do. And we'll continue to vote for it. Glad you are our neighbor!

  55. @John Butler You are correct. And to "promote the general welfare" is even in the preamble to our Constitution!

  56. @John Butler It's surprisingly simple, actually: Canadians are mostly white and, even if they speak French, you guys all basically resemble each other. In the US, we imported countless black people for slavery, and millions of racist white Americans would rather suffer themselves for lack of a safety net than see one penny of their taxes go to these people, who they see as different and morally inferior. In the USA, almost everything is connected to racism.

  57. I normally agree and love your columns. BUT! How many folks go in and out of treatment centers? Being clean and sober is a responsibility. You don't talk about what the Knapp parents taught their children. I watched my parents work hard. Even with a good work ethic, I began drinking. I've now been sober many, many years, but I needed to make that happen. I think something was going on with that family you have not mentioned or did not know about in order to explain why all five of them had unbeatable problems.

  58. Please keep on writing, Mr. Kristof! You have become the conscience of America, and we desperately need you at this time! I grew up in NYC during the 60's in a poor, single-parent household (my father died from disease when I was only six), and I managed to be the first in my family to graduate from college as well as complete two Masters' programs. That being said, there are people who have so-called "addictive personalities" and live in areas where opportunity, support, and even some hand-holding are not as readily available. Just because some people are able to overcome hardship and persevere does not mean that everyone has that ability. That's why we need the support of government agencies and private individuals who volunteer and donate to those in need. Criticism only discourages. Please keep on writing, Mr. Kristof! We need you!

  59. Based on the negative comments, some among us truly need a healthy dose of empathy and compassion. In addition, a reminder of the admonition: before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. It is difficult for any of us to predict how we will handle overwhelming stress and despair. The Knapp family never planned on such an awful ending as none of us would. Something to remember before judging.

  60. It is not only unfashionable but inconceivable to think outside of preserving individual autonomy. We worship ‘freedom’, itself a negative definition focused not on what we can do but what we cannot be obligated to do. Our civilisation understands itself not as a product of history and maker of future history, but as a facilitation — like a big shopping mall with a legal system — of individuals doing what pleases them, so long as they do not interrupt others doing the same and disrupt the peace. This condition has not made us happy. While we agree that liberty, equality, fraternity and open economies are noble methods, the goal of these — having a better civilisation and individual lives — has not manifested itself through those methods. By basing our ideal on freedom, we have closed ourselves off to obligations outside of ourselves, which coincidentally are the things that make us feel most alive. We are prisoners of the self, and it is no surprise we act selfishly as a result.

  61. "“This article describes ruined, pitiful people,” one reader commented. “The main problem they have is weakness of character.”" Depression, alcoholism, substance abuseand the despair that can lead to suicide--diseases. Diseases are treatable, just as cancer is. Does anyone say cancer is caused by weak character? I stopped drinking nearly 40 years, ago, but that less about my character than it does I was lucky to get help. I agree with Mr. and Mrs. Kristoff that personal responsibility plays a role in avoiding diseases of despair but so do resources. Some people seem downright punitive towards the despairing. Throw in this adminstration's contempt for evidence-based medicine and science in general, and it's likely to get far worse. I wouldn't wish addiction or depression on my worst enemy. That so many are so judgmental towards folks they don't even know is disheartening.

  62. @ChristineMcM As always, a great comment, Christine. I come from a loving, upper class family and attended a great university. But early on, I sensed that something was wrong with me. Fast forward to years of drinking and basic craziness. Thankfully, I was diagnosed as bipolar . After about a week on the drugs I was given, I just stopped drinking. I haven’t drank in years, in fact I never think about it. I had excellent insurance and a supportive family for all those years, which makes me lucky, not special. More help with mental health issues in this country would do a world of good and save countless lives.

  63. @ChristineMcM People can be so cruel. We look at Trump's total lack of compassion and empathy. But we have to consider those who put him in this position of exploitation. Those very people vote to keep others of his ilk in office, to wit, McConnell Incorporated. I am getting a first hand view of the mentally ill and victims of substance abuse. In fact, our Sonoma County community is being tested right now by the large numbers of the homeless with the above diseases. Will this so-called Democratic conclave live up to what it preaches, or will it become hypocrites and join forces with those fans of this Trump Era?

  64. Could we look for something beyond blaming people like the Knapps for the sad consequences of their weakness and self-destructive behavior. Some people just can’t handle all the choices available in the 21st century. When we emigrated in 1958 from England to Iowa, one of the many positive things we noticed was the relative lack of problems caused by alcohol. After many unpleasant experiences with drunken fellow-students in Europe, I wondered what Iowans were doing right. The only alcohol available by the drink was 3.2% beer. Other alcoholic drinks were available at a post-office-like state liquor store which was not allowed to advertise. No alcohol could be served on campus or at faculty homes when students were present Maybe the Knapps were people who needed to have fewer temptations in their path

  65. When did so many Americans become mean-spirited? The "I've got mine and I'm alright" attitude has been growing for the past few years. How do people justify the acceptance of our citizens who need help, for whatever reason? The recent article on homeless in LA highlights that attitude. Comments included the wish for the medieval diseases to take hold and "do the job", the resuscitation of work houses and asylums, the usefulness of vagrancy and begging laws. We will pay a huge price for this attitude down the road, if not already.

  66. @Kathleen H. I believe the 80s were a time of “greed is good”, “selfishness is good”. And we have so many naive followers of a fiction writer named Ayn Rand, who has no real knowledge or understanding of human behavior. The Supreme Court gave permission for politicians to be bought and sold. And we are where we are.

  67. @Kathleen H the answer is simple. You simply cannot help people who don’t want to help themselves. Most of the victims in this article vote republican oand consider any safety net to be communism. At this point it is best to play the long game to simply let that crow self destruct so we can build a better society.

  68. As a former public defender in Florida I had many clients who were opioid addicts. Most had initially been injured and were prescribed opioids. The choices open to opioid addicts are very different depending upon financial and social circumstances . Those with good health insurance and/or families with financial means could access high quality drug treatment. Those without those resources remained addicts. Opioids were the most expensive street drug at $25 a pill. In order to get the money, addicts often sold the drugs themselves or engaged in other felony crimes to fund their addictions. Convicted felons often are completely shut out of the world of employment. They are society's throw aways. What do you think happens to their children?

  69. Our collective social responsibility never penetrates the GOP's iron clad mantra of, "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you'll feel so much better." It seems to be okay to look down upon those who are suffering and do nothing to improve their lives. Look at the things the wealthy are doing. They now are purchasing members of Congress. It never seems to matter that 90% of the people want decent healthcare. Congress has good healthcare and they don't care about the rest of the country. Our infrastructure is slowly falling apart and nothing gets done. Schools are underfunded and class sizes are rising and nothing gets done. Pollution on our environment is rising and nothing gets done. Taxes for the wealthy and corporations have been cut but that is just fine. Therefore, there isn't money for Medicare for All, SNAP, Medicaid or raises in Social Security payments. It's okay to vilify the poor but they aren't the ones doing the most damage. It is the wealthy and the Congress who have all that they need. It is they who forget about helping everyone else. Trump has always had everything materialistic. He has no compassion nor any understanding of what it means to suffer from poverty nor a lack. Social responsibility is nowhere in his vision to 'Make America Great Again". "...a country cannot reach its potential when so many of its citizens are not achieving theirs."

  70. One of the worst examples of requiring "personal responsibility" is the tragic famine in Ireland in the mid 19th century. The potato crop failure hit poorer farmers hard, but there was plenty of other food available had the government and wealthy landowners been willing to distribute it. Concerned that distributing the food would cause a drop in commodity prices and encourage the starving farmers to be lazy, they withheld aid. As a result, over a million starved and a million more emigrated.

  71. I benefited from growing up in a different time, the 1960s. My family was poor and lived in public housing. However, it was a time of great investment in education. Although I attended a public school student in a relatively poor area, there was great investment in education. The district developed an outstanding gifted program, with an emphasis on science. Essentially, an early version of a STEM program. They had subsidized lunches and no one was shamed for using the subsidy. When I graduated, there were grants, scholarships and loans that enabled me to go to a public u university and emerge with limited student loan debt. I fear that the new level of meanness that currently exists, places value on the wrong things. There is a pro-life movement that I view as primarily pro-birth. There is no care for the babies once born. There is an effort to gut government programs, such as WIC and SNAP. Once the babies are born, they are expected to pull themselves up by their own "bootie" straps. Schools have become increasingly segregated. I suspect that had I been born poor in the current age, my prospects would have been much diminished. This truly weighs on me. As Jackson Browne once sang in Our Lady of the Well: "Oh, it's so far, the other way my country's gone."

  72. Infants have few life choices. Children, teenagers, young adults and adults have lots of life choices. Rarely is one forced to become a criminal; most people, even children, know right from wrong. Some people, even those with good jobs and steady incomes, make bad choices as far as drugs are concerned; trying to weave all of this into a compelling--or even coherent--narrative that explains how and why people make bad choices is far beyond the ability of this column.

  73. @Mon Ray I don't think the idea is to take away personal responsibility but to understand our cultural and political failure to be socially responsible. We've all benefited in different (and unequal) ways from access to social programs. Others have suffered unduly from lack of access to these same programs, or from dis-empowering circumstances that are a bi-product of policies that favor one segment of the population over another.

  74. I'm so glad this article was written. I have noticed over the last couple of decades a more cruel and judgmental attitude towards the poor. It seems now that people are much more comfortable blaming the poor and disadvantaged for their situations in life. I understand the need for personal responsibility but I don't understand why many have turned away from collective responsibility. I grew up in government subsidized housing and my family struggled financially but I always knew there was a way out. By becoming more educated I found my way out, not to riches, but definitely a better and more stable life. I see young people today struggling to make ends meet. The minimum wage no way can cover their basic needs. Try going to school and piling up massive debt and all along working a full time job and not making enough money to feed and house yourself. The rich have become richer and some lower income people are worn out by the grind of just trying to make a living. When I was much younger the minimum wage was worth more than it is today. Why don't we care enough about each other that we are not fighting for a living wage. As a society we are beating people down when we could be lifting people up. It's not surprising that so manty fail when we are making harder for people to succeed.

  75. Are we going to blame the climate crisis on personal bad choices and collectively do nothing about it? Only when the people of this country realize that poverty, lack of equal opportunity and poor social support of any of its citizens impacts all of us, will we make the necessary changes in our society to prevent and combat what happened to the Knapps. Its the social trickle down policy for lack of any better term. Finger pointing will not help anyone. We need to change our political leaders in Washington more than ever. Greed and partisanship have paralyzed much needed legislation for developing federal and state programs that would have provided a safety net for the Knapps. Sometimes everything wrong in the country plays out in your own backyard. It is up to each and every person to become a neighbor that cares and use that pointing finger to direct someone in need to a social program in your community for help.

  76. As a retired physician, I learned that each of us is one drunk driver, one fall, one malignant cell, one bacterium, one virus, one tick or mosquito bite, one stray bullet, one ruptured aneurysm or one plugged left main coronary artery away from devastating consequences of sudden death, sudden incapacity, or chronic incapacity with ongoing huge medical bills. All we can do is to try to put the odds in our favor, but I saw plenty of good people who did everything they could to stay healthy, have bad luck. It happens. And people who are obese, have bad diets, and bad personalities can live on and on. It happens, too. Statistically, they don't do well, but there are always outliers. Just bad luck may be genetics, but too often it is bad fortune to have been born to poverty, not have the right diet, not get the right education to learn about their body, not have the money to get preventive care, have a pre-existing condition, or live where "thoughts and prayers" plus jars full of singles by the cashier and crowd source funding should be adequate. I wish some of the Republicans in power could have walked in my medical shoes the day I rounded in the ICU on eight people who were irreversibly brain injured from accidents, aneurysms, strokes, and encephalitis.

  77. @Mike S. I'm surprised to see you write with compassion about "good people who did everything they could to stay healthy" and then write without compassion about those who are obese and those with bad personalities. As roughly 40 percent of adults are obese, that's a lot of people to lack compassion for.

  78. @Mike S. As a fellow physician, I am happy to have a colleague who represents the best of our profession. Too often we are represented by the bad apples among us. I couldn’t agree more with this article and your comments: people who are “successful” didn’t necessarily work harder or have more talent - they were lucky to be born into the right circumstances or be at the right place at the right time. The playing field has become so uneven that this personal responsibility narrative is more irrelevant than ever.

  79. @Pink Sky I read that passage as good people vs. people with bad personalities and obese vs those who eat well - not 'good' vs 'obese'. The doctor is simply saying that statistics apart, there are no guaranteed outcomes for individuals.

  80. I'd like to try and explain a picture I hold in my head of how the world works: A individual lives within a society. The society is embedded within a country or the entire earth. An individual is limited by the structure of the society, just as the society is limited by the structure of the nation or earth. The system works by reciprocal maintenance process; the individual serves society, who in turn serves the nation or earth/nature. The reciprocal part is; earth/nature or the nation nurtures society, while society nurtures the individual. This reciprocity is broken when either side does not fulfill their required role. We are currently perfectly structured (physically and mentally) to get the results we are getting.

  81. Thank you, thank you for this insightful, compassionate response to the "troubles" that so many people face in our country and all over the world. Of course, we all may play some part in what "happens" to us, but we also must acknowledge the reality of "luck" and the limitations of our own personal control over the forces around us. Just about every person I've ever known has done the very best s/he could to manage the difficulties of life that came along. The least we can do is offer a hand when we can, and set aside our unhelpful "critiques" of their situations so we can walk beside them as they struggle.

  82. I appreciate your follow-up to the Tight-Rope excerpt, Mr Kristof. I’ve long wondered about the political/cultural value of ignoring half of our human birthright, which is our capacity to feel compassion, understand our connectedness to one another, and recognize that our fates are intertwined. The other half of our humanity, the half that is most celebrated—our individualism--is no doubt the source of our strength through diversity and personal responsibility. But diversity without cooperation, and personal responsibility without social responsibility can only stem from ignorance. Sadly we all lose. What really gets me is the hypocrisy of people who consider themselves Christians or devotees of any major world religion, who elect politicians who implement policies that essentially handicap pockets of people all over the nation. Most religions share the universal principles of loving thy neighbor as thyself, suspending judgment, and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. If these “individualists” have benefited from and watched their children benefit from good schools, access to healthcare, and access to jobs paying livable wages in their communities, how can they not want this for all others? Just makes me sad.

  83. I agree that we need a new narrative of empathy and shared social responsibility in this country. Why are we so cruel and punishing? History is largely driven by the power of ideas and the quality of the story we tell about ourselves and our nation. This, more than policy proposals and plans, is what I long to hear from our politicians and candidates. I don't believe we can change without the artculation of a vision that leads us to a to ask: how can I help? how can we help? Thank you for the book and your example of unfailing compassion in word and action.

  84. As an educator I learned that the idea of a “lazy child” is a myth. A child can give up, be discouraged, be in despair and feel hopeless. Trouble along the way has made them give up the natural desire to be the good, strong, powerful and healthy person that they wish to be. It isn’t just about children— that is the way with all humans . The natural human drive is a desire to have agency in one’s life, to be strong and do well. Here in the US the economic system is completely rigged. Much easier to feel hopeless than hopeful. We also a culture that celebrates consumerism and material success to such a degree that a person providing modest food, shelter, transportation, clothing for their family is not celebrated but shamed. Confluence of corporate control of the law, automation, globalization and consumerism is taking a huge toll. Folks desire success. They give up. Who can blame them?

  85. How mani hard working people got tired of working hard when they didn’t get rewarded for it? Too many people I know work very hard, yet still don’t make living wages. How demoralizing is that? There’s only so long people are willing to work hard if it doesn’t make any difference in their paycheck. It shouldn’t be a surprise that after a while people just give up.

  86. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is a fine idea, but too many of our citizens are denied those bootstraps. We, who are fortunate enough to have those "bootstraps" have no idea how difficult it can be for those less fortunate. Of course, there is something called "personal responsibility," but for God's sake, and our country's sake, give all our children a fair chance.

  87. Thanks Mr Kristoff. I agree about America's obsession with "personal responsibility". The flip-side is the role of the "government" in America's society. The difference about statistics in the UK is that positive role of the central government, from which we in Australia also benefit (see how our national health system works). Voters in both countries vote for and expect a strong helpful role of government. You might examine how America's social cohesion started disintegrating with the change in the economics paradigm, under the Chicago School of Economics in the 1970s. The former Keynsian Model had a strong role for national government. Now, the Friedmanite model is "government bad; private sector good; the individual only gets what they can pay for". National budgets must balance. But the reality has become that national taxes get reduced, national programs are eliminated because of their "costs" and people suffer. Especially when job-creating industries close, health coverage is lost, and life expectations are lost. Look at the Westminster system of "Government" and how it provides supports for key way-stations in life. And how our citizens are happy to pay taxes to make that happen. Please.

  88. I am waiting for your book, and look forward to the insights you and Sheryl have to share about poverty in the US. I look at my own life, and see how I am no longer the middle class that I once was, but I am aware of how many more advantages I have than many others. Those self satisfied commentators who are patting themselves on the back about how hard they worked to get to where they are, and that anyone can do it if they just work hard enough,don't even see the realities that many people face because they have never experienced them. Most have the benefits of being raised in a family that, while maybe not rich, provided a secure roof over their heads, food on the table, a good education, access to resources that many don't have. Those resources are taken for granted. Sure you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have a nice pair of boots, but kind of hard to do without a pair at all. The worst of it is the "only me and mine" attitude that seems to prevail. No ability to look past their own front door and see how we all benefit when everyone is doing better - healthy, educated, with a place to live, a job, food on the table. My hope is that books like yours will open the reader's eyes and help them be more compassionate to the people in their communities who could use a hand making that next step up. Maybe it will be their hand outstretched to grasp it. Thanks!

  89. It's not right to say I enjoyed these articles but I am glad I read them. Here in ND many people have that holier than thou attitude and are openly vindictive about it. Nearly every day someone dies by overdose or survives with people saying they shouldn't receive life saving treatment. People are also quite likely to die on our rural roads, killed by drunk drivers Suicide happens frequently. I am grateful my daughter works with chemically dependent people, though in Minnesota. We have learned from her experiences and by reading articles such as yours.

  90. Mr Kristof, I agree with you 100%. I also think that there is nowdays a certain obsession with material goods or money to be had if a person has a successful career. Therefore, ruthless strategies and methods that lead to success and achievement of money are allowed, excused and/or tolerated. That is very unfortunate and we can only hope that younger generations may learn to appreciate not only material wealth but also personal happiness, free time or eg. clean water and air etc. For people with scarce means it is not easy to always make a good choice. Migrant workers for eg. very often have no choice but except poorly paid jobs. There is a social responsibility but then there is also a Christian responsibility to help the weaker, the poorer, the hungry etc. In a society where the majority of people are deeply religious, it is surprising that this does not call for action rather than blaming poor people for their poverty.

  91. I once saw a billboard which stated: Jesus does not abandon those who make bad choices" No one should be abandoned, none of us are immune to feeling despair, and resorting to "bad decisions" We need to be open to that possibility and be open to helping those in need.

  92. Some additional thoughts on Individualism and Social Responsibility as it relates to freedom: Principles of cooperation abound in nature, and underlie the success of all systems, from micro to macro, biological to social. Likewise, examples of over-wrought, under-regulated individualism abound. Cancer succeeds very well at a cellular level by individualistically capitalizing on everything in its path. Yet it fails organismically when through unchecked growth it kills its host. In my own community, a corporate entity’s private property rights allowed it to unsustainably log massive swaths of land in a manner that destroyed the ecology of the entire region, drove salmon to the brink of extinction, and cost individuals and the community untold damages in river siltification, flooding, loss of future economies, and so on. When principles of competition reign, and the preservation of individual and corporate rights become a cancer that promotes economic and social instability, environmental degradation, and destroyed opportunities for others, how is this not the ultimate infringement on our freedom? This is not my definition of a free society.

  93. So true, Nick. I think it goes back to our theology — "man" is born in sin vs "man" is made in the image of God. The sin must be beaten (literally sometimes) out of the child, etc. It's punishment vs compassion and understanding. This theology also tremendously useful in blaming others for problems rather than taking them on ourselves. Finally, "social Darwinism" has been shown to be a false narrative for our primitive ancestors, who survived not by being the fittest, but by cooperation. This theology hurts us all. Finally, COME TO HOUSTON, NICK!!! There are some intelligent, compassionate people here, too!

  94. "It leads us to lock up drug users instead of providing them help, even though each dollar invested in treatment can save $12 or more in reduced criminal justice and health costs." And, of course, each dollar invested in treatment erodes the potential of the for-profit prison industry in the U.S. A true conservative and Trump cultist could never tolerate that.

  95. I am both surprised and distressed that readers of your column would make such terrible comments. I applaud you, and your wife, for taking the time to tell the stories of families like the Knapp family. This statement is absolutely true: "Workers lost their dignity and hope, and that exacerbated the spiral of self-medication and self-destruction, of loneliness and despair that swept through my No. 6 bus." Thank you for always being willing to speak for those who aren't given the opportunity to speak and be heard. And on a lighter note-can't wait to receive my signed copy of Tightrope from Strand!

  96. Mr Kristof, you describe Latina culture when you say ... infused with empathy and a “morality of grace,” (one that is less about pointing fingers and more about offering helping hands." I, an American who became a Canadian nearly fifty years ago, have lived in Latin America for thirty-four years, and have benefitted by just that unconditional love that is the backbone of Latina society--treated in hospital without charge for a broken neck incurred in a bicycle accident, and for a heart attack, keeping me, without cost to me, in the most advanced ICU unit until it was deemed safe to move me to a hospital ward. I received and continue to receive the appropriate medicine to stave off another attack. Most of all, each time I was wheeled in, I was not asked if I had insurance, but instead, if I was alone. On both occasions, learning that I was, indeed, without family, all the family members of other patients took care of me--from scratching my nose to dumping bedpans, from buying shaving and tooth-brushing gear to holding my hand. And Trump thinks that Latina society shouldn't add to America? Clearly, no one asked him, Are you alone?

  97. @Douglas Chapman - Great story. Thank you.

  98. What you left unsaid, Mr. Kristof, presumably in the interest of appearing to be fair and balanced and objective, is that America's misanthropic pubic policies and abominable safety net are right-wing creations championed by a political party that celebrates corporations and cash, not people, and that systematically invests in the rich and systematically disinvests in the unrich. With a nation that prefers to fund oligarchy instead of public education, public healthcare, worker rights, voting rights and decent regulations, of course the end result will be America's modern feudalism with high infant mortality, medical bankruptcies, poverty wages, weak public education systems, collapsing infrastructure and fake democracy that ignores the will of the people while in thrall to the dollarcratic donor class. Some will blame Democrats for not resisting enough, but the ugly truth is that the Republican Party drove America to this squalid place by making corporations people, money 'speech', democracy fake and Grand Old Power their only goal. The Greed Over People party made sure that the America's Reverse Robin Hoods ruled the day in this country and that the unrich never had much of a chance to rise above poverty, depression, daily struggle and "God". The answer and solution is better public policy and a functioning democratic republic, something other countries figured out decades ago...and something America's Republican Party could never stand. D to go forward; R for Reverse.

  99. @Socrates Your oft used "D for forward, R for reverse" is now on my little gas sipping car -- printed prominently on a bumpersticker. Thanks for the inspiration!

  100. @Socrates I agree with everything you say, except for excusing the Democrats who aided and abetted much that you ascribe to the Republicans. Are the Dems the "lesser of two evils"? Yes. But they own a share of the blame nonetheless. In a way, their crime is more insidious because they professed to be fighting for the working and middle class outwardly, but undercutting them behind closed doors. Until this betrayal is acknowledged, they've going to keep doing it. Until Sanders, then Warren, finally began speaking out, the Democrats were happy to continue their Clinton Third Way formula of making promises to the working and middle class, and then breaking them at the behest of the donor class. Even now the DNC is actively working to undermine Sanders and Warren because of the threat they pose to the Establishment. In the end, forced to choose, I will choose the "lesser evil", but I work towards trying to end that evil in at least one party.

  101. @Kingfish52 That seems to be the secret of Donald's success. Unlike establishment Republicans (who never claimed to represent the poor or struggling), he brazenly promoted himself as the savior of the working class and those who felt left behind. The Democratic party sold out to big donors, becoming different from Republicans only by degrees. That Donald has perpetrated a huge fraud on his base (taking actions that belie his claimed allegiance to working folks) is clear to all but those who can't bear to admit it. The only candidates offering any hope of actual systemic change are Warren and Sanders. That's why Wall Street fears them.

  102. Anguish about this topic for me ... What is it that Americans are so afraid of? OUR MILITARY EXPENSE IS ENORMOUS beyond any rational need while we seem on the whole to worship individualism as a religion. Community is not something we are committed to; we are committed to individual ascendancy. If we were to devote only 10% of the Military Expense to investment in education, job training, innovation, research, health care we would have a revolution in national strengthening. Why are we all so silent about the military budget? What are we afraid of ? We are no longer an exceptional country with the vast abyss between the ultra rich and the rest of us. The result research shows is a socially dysfunctional society. What can we do to stand for a redistribution of resources from the military and the very rich to build a strong nation ? What will it take ? That is the CHOICE, the RESPONSIBILITY OF WE THE PEOPLE. We can create a stronger nation if we devote the resources we have to the obvious: again, education, health care, job training, community building.

  103. Mr. Kristof makes an important point. Blaming the victims for their own difficulties is nothing more than a rationale for one's own selfishness, and a desire not to be bothered with anyone else. We hear it from wealthy people whose only political concern is their own taxes, and we hear it from lower income people who have fought hard for what they have. Such thinking doesn't admit that poverty is not the only variable in a person's life. Someone who grows up in a home with only one drug-addicted parent, or with a genetic predisposition toward mental illness, or whose luck has simply been bad, is not going to have the same chance to climb out of poverty that someone with better odds has had. We can ignore the vulnerable members of our population but more and more Americans seem to be falling through the cracks of our stingy social safety net, the stingiest of all developed nations. Resources are not as abundant here as they used to be. Many more of us are competing for them. A poor person can't go out and find cheap land as they once could by heading west. America has been slow to develop socio-economic policies to address the needs of its citizens. It's time to do so.

  104. This is a key topic for social justice; who deserves compassion and help from the community? This intersects with the human concern with fairness, and that concern can take many forms and this intersection drives who we help and who we ignore. Why do you and your wife have compassion for those you observe who are 'in trouble', Mr. Kristof? What variables that influenced each of you as you grew from conception to the present time? How are these associated with your deep compassion and desire to help? I am assuming people who have a very different take on who deserves compassion and community help compared to you and your wife, as well as me have different factors that have influenced theirs. I agree with your concerns and ideas about who needs help and how to help and I don't understand the minds of this other kind of person you describe. Is there a means to open a continuing dialogue that isn't just hurling of accusations and insults and confusion and cancelling each other?

  105. @TDHawkes Thanks for those questions. BUT - what are the answers ? See my comments below about the proper role of "government" in a sane and supportive society. Please also note my emphasis on "society" - that's all of us. The people of our nation (wherever that may be). Not the "economy" so favoured by economists advising government - meaning private capital. That tends to favour making very large CEO remunerations, rather than paying their workers and staff proper wages that reflect their efforts that produce company profits.

  106. Very few ambitious USA politicians representing well-off constituencies can publicly tell the truth as you have in your recent articles; they would be booted out of their envied seats. One can only hope that enough of them have sincere empathy for the working class and a plan. I struggle to feel encouraged. Our country seems rigged for the rich and won’t even know that it is falling short in the eyes of history.

  107. A cousin of the personal-responsibility narrative is the rags-to-riches fantasy. I know a number of people who don't want to tax the rich because they think that through smart choices and hard work, they can soon be millionaires themselves.

  108. I sure hope you, and your wife, are supporting either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the primaries. If you really believe addiction should be treated as a disease and all people should be given a fair shot, those are the only two candidates who will push for those policies.

  109. Not so. Klobuchar is committed to addiction issues and mental health. Biden is as well. Please. This isn’t just a progressive view.

  110. @EP But the neoliberal policies still embraced by several of the other candidates is the root cause for the plunder of our social safety net.

  111. @Laurie No that is incorrect, the root cause is the Republican party.

  112. As opportunity diminishes for young people, even out of college, we will see more heartache. As more military personnel suffer from their experiences without adequate medical support, we see more heartache. Look at suicide rates in our society. Remember that there are some commenters who seem to find attacking others to be a form of recreation; they have problems of their own. If my government is going to make decisions and mistakes, I want them to err on the side of humanity.

  113. I find that those that speak of Ayn Rand or Social Darwinism have a very different and very selective definition of "personal responsibility". They might see their subsidies or wealth from investments as ok while welfare, the New Deal, the Green Deal, or any program that benefits a great part of our community as bad.

  114. Morality of grace. Exactly. I am saddened and appalled at the lack of grace in our supposed civilized country.

  115. This is one of Nick Kristof's best columns. Our central civil war isn't between parties, or races, regions; it is between those who see their social responsibility to improve the community, work to improve opportunity, decrease despair and those who feel that bad luck and defeat are a judgement of God for personal failure. The Knapps bear responsibility for their choices. We, all of us, in all of our decisions about how to manage communities, education, jobs, and the changes wrought in becoming a service economy in an era of rapid automation, and our loathing of taxation and government bear the responsibility that they had few other options to choose from.

  116. "The disintegration of America's working class " is primarily the fault of our elites: political, economic, media, and academic. These elites, through trade agreements, put typical Americans into direct competition with minuscule wage, no regulations labor abroad. Citizen labor cannot compete on cost with semi-slave labor.

  117. As it turns out, there's a lot of research (space limits referencing here, but you can find it) that indicates that those in higher socioeconomic strata use drugs at similar rates, break the law at similar rates, and in general do stupid, impulsive things at similar rates as people in lower strata. The point is, of course, that those in higher strata are much less likely to be arrested for it, and when they are they are much more likely to have the resources to both avoid incarceration and to get mental/physical help. And that is because good legal representation and good rehab is generally private and costly, and not part of our social safety net. Yes, we're Social Darwinist to the extreme in the US, at least party because of our Calvinist and Prosperity Gospel heritage that sees only the rich as smart and worthy, and sees the poor's problems, and their poverty overall, as inherent in their own skin, without any contribution from institutionalized inequalities. ("If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" is practically a proverb here.) Of course, other nations seem to have a better handle on the balance between individual and social responsibility--even those nations where Calvinism/Prosperity Gospel started in Europe do a much better job of not letting it be the sine qua non than we do. But flatly, until we develop a little philosophic flexibility, especially among our oligarchs, stories like those of the Knapps are going to be legion.

  118. We ultimately as a society, a civilization, must accept responsibility that we are imperfect - we're human. We must join to share in the responsibility to uplift everyone. No one should be left behind while only a few can prosper. My Darkside tells me that over millenniums we have become less civilized, not more. It is a cautionary tale of human nature.

  119. I often think the "personal responsibility" narrative and the victim-blaming that goes along with it is a psychological defense. It's a defense against the very real possibility that the person making the judgmental comments is one layoff away from poverty, one major illness away from requiring Medicaid and food stamps, one accident away from disability and chronic pain. We ALL are. But it is easier for some to deny those possibilities, push unpleasant thoughts away and think, "Not me. I'm smarter than that". All the while knowing that yes indeed, they could be in the shoes of the person they self-righteously believe "deserves" what happens to them because they made "bad choices".

  120. I believe there is also a personal responsibility we each have––derived as a part of citizenship, spirituality or just being human–– to help someone who is suffering.

  121. When we observe that our currently elected president is the ubiquitous face of American cruelty we must also acknowledge that his is the face of something more deeply embedded throughout our culture. Guessing whether the underlying lack of empathy prevails more today than previously exceeds my pay grade but when the president projects cruelty's face, ordinary citizens can more easily justify a self-satisfaction with little shame or reflection. Policies for which we only recently condemned other nations are today legitimized under the smug banner of "personal responsibility." When we see a working family laid low by breadwinner lay-off there, but for good luck and the grace of God, go we.

  122. An immigrant family from Poland. A Harvard success story. An American treasure. Thank you Nicholas Kristof

  123. The harsh comments Kristof cites are partly a form of whistling in the dark. "I have a strong character. I am responsible. So I don't need to worry about ever falling victim to drugs, suicide, mental illness, poverty ..."

  124. Mr. Kristof. I appreciate your response to the comments of some of your readers from your previous column. My husband and I attended the Progressive Forum in Houston for you and your wife’s presentation regarding Tightrope. We have been been discussing these issues since Thursday. We have rarely been so intellectually engaged after attending similar events. It has been a very real game changer for us as we consider our choices for the Democratic primary. I just wish your book would be required reading for the Democratic candidates as well as all debate moderators.

  125. Great series, but here's one flaw. As a former journalist, I know how important it is to be nonpartisan, yet that can also fail to inform readers and voters. You talk about policies that would help struggling rural communities - more power for unions, higher minimum wage, better health care, more funds for worker retraining - and yet you fail to say that one party supports those polices - the Democrats - and one party does not - Republicans. Instead you rely on the old standard line - both parties are to blame. Not only isn't that true, it also creates a sense of helplessness and disengagement. It gives those who are suffering and those who wish to help another reason to stay away from politics and elections.

  126. @Bill Ainsworth Democrats merely pretend to support those policies and use procedural subterfuge as cover for not actually being able to implement those policies. Own goals like Pay-Go, the rotating cast of “centrist” Dems and the ubiquitous “how are you going to pay for that” that is never applied to war making simply reveal to those paying attention that both parties do indeed serve the same monied masters.

  127. I agree with the general point of your article Mr. Christof. But some people - often those who most need support - choose a Party that does not want to invest in human capital and resources. What do we do?

  128. There never has been, and never will be. a "land of unlimited opportunity." That is a straw man. America. though, is a pretty good place to iive. All of us die. Some sooner than others and often from circumstances we cannot control. Others can control their circumstances and do so with bad judgment, Blowing oneself up with meth is not a result of society's failures -- just as getting rich in the Market is not. sign of a society's success. If one does self-destructive things then one is more likely to self-destruct. Why is such a statement so seemingly controversial? In our race toward death there will always be those who choose to take the inside rail. That will never change.

  129. Ah, but why did they do self destructive things? Of the people I have known who fell into addiction, almost every single one of them had major life disrupting bad events happen to them beforehand. Maybe they wouldn’t have picked up a drug habit had they not had their lives devastated first.

  130. The working class ceded all rights, and power, to employers by voting against their own best economic, health and social interests and by drinking the racist infused Kool Aide beginning with Nixon followed by Reagan, Bush I and now Trump. In essence workers are reaping what they sowed. Historians, economists and sociologists will point to the period from 1945 to 1980 as being the high water mark of the American middle and working classes as well as being an aberration in America’s social and economic history. Eventually, those workers will have died off, ending living memories of a “golden age”. Since 1980 more money has been spent on tax cuts than on infrastructure; less enforcement and repeal of financial rules has made it easier for fewer people to accrue more wealth; less enforcement of merger/acquisitions rules have reduced the number of industrial players, and by extension, jobs; lower taxes have reduced educational and job training investment, etc.

  131. I remember clearly my mother saying more than a few times during my childhood, when she heard some hard news that had befallen neighbors "there but for the grace of God, go I." Mom had her faults but she taught me empathy and for that I am grateful. We're all in this together. If someone is in pain in my community, then my community is the lesser. And my community is ultimately the whole world.

  132. Just now starting to recover from a major depression episode, if someone told me it was weakness of character I’d kick their teeth out.

  133. Unfortunately your wrote your original column in a way that implied it was "our" fault. Our fault for letting these people fail. That's in part what brought out the nasty negative comments. Of course it is important for society to try to lend a helping hand, and even more important to try to structure itself in a way that most people can survive and flourish. But you can't deny the existence of people with self-destructive behavior no matter the circumstances.

  134. I am not surprised any more about the lack of compassion people have for the less fortunate. I conclude that most of these people have been fortunate to have never had a loved one in such a horrible position. If they had, they would hopefully gain some empathy.

  135. Unfortunately Mr. Kristof undermines his important message and argument with poor examples. If they rode the same school bus as he did, it seems unlikely that the Knapp children were innumerate or illiterate. Mr. Kristof's description suggests there really was something wrong with this particular family, with its litany of thoroughgoing self-inflicted catastrophe. Nevertheless,the requirement for investment in human capital is practically self-evident for a society to maintain itself. The contrast between neighborhoods in Philadelphia is much more compelling. Please! Restate this argument with better evidence and more logical examples.

  136. Dear Mr. Kristoff, I appreciate all you have written about the Knapps. I recognize your sense of loss, the grief and anger you feel , as so many others feel, at this world of ours turned inside out and upside down. However, it was the actions of each of the four who died, becoming involved with and then addicted to drugs and alcohol which ultimately led each to an early and maybe predictable death. Did someone force them, tie them up and drug them all against their will? Your article doesn't say that. The 4 who died, died as a result of decisions they each made... lousy decisions with limited choices to be sure, which may have been further empowered by familial DNA which held a likelihood of easy addiction to these substances... but not everyone from your bus made those decisions. The ravaged and tragic face of their mother at their graves says volumes, and is truly heartbreaking. As a mother and grandmother I feel her grief. This is a huge tragedy. I understand your love for these friends and place of your childhood, but perhaps your objectivity is somewhat altered due to your very deep and genuine personal connection.

  137. Did it? I wonder how many times the addiction comes as a result of another problem, such as job loss and/or illness. People who are down on their luck and have just lost everything they have worked for are really vulnerable. And they are thrown into a situation where they are now in contact with drugs that they would have never come in contact with had they not become unemployed. It’s not a surprise they reach for something that makes them feel good for a little while. You might too in their shoes.

  138. It always amazes me that people can be so confident in their moral superiority and their belief that people who experience adverse outcomes are to blame because of their poor choices. This all changes when they or someone they love experiences one of these bad outcomes. Then suddenly, they realize that we all are part of the same human condition. It's sad that it takes a tragedy for many people to get to that point.

  139. There used to be something called noblesse oblige, which, as patronizing as it was, at least acknowledged some obligation by the rich to those left behind by the system. It used to be polite to call the poor 'underprivileged'; now the rich call them 'takers'. The Prosperity Gospel and its secular counterparts like right wing think tank Randianism, Wall Street Social Darwinism and Silicon Valley libertarian transhumanism have infiltrated our culture so thoroughly that it inverted the demands on the rent collector class - seen in societies becoming more egalitarian - replacing it with resentment for those below, characteristic of a hereditary caste system.

  140. I live in a neighborhood where there are a lot of street people, mostly youth. I've often heard neighbors say, "They like to live this way," or, "They're just lazy and don't want to work." On the contrary, most of these are "throwaway kids." They come from abusive or negligent families. They may look "scary," but "scared" is more to the point. A tourist from Denmark, horrified by the plight of kids sleeping on the sidewalk, remarked, "ln our country we think "we." In your country you think "I."

  141. I mostly agree with this essay of Kristof. I don't blame the Knapps for their problems. But my views are unusual. I was raised a Seventh-Day Adventist, like Ben Carson. But I didn't believe that the Grand Canyon could be created by a great flood, that the earth was only 6000 years old. So I abandoned religion. When I went to the University I found that much of the reasoning that occurred within religion had been resurrected within sociology, political science and economics. What is left? Well, science and in particular biology. To construct a morality, I reasoned, one should start with biology. Fish in a pond grow in population until they reach carrying capacity. As they approach the limit, death rates go up. The fish would be happier if they simply had fewer offspring. Then each individual would have a longer life. Humans are like that too. Population growth eventually lowers living standards. Ultimately, resources become scarce and people like the Knapps live shorter lives. Biologists like Meadows et al have studied this in the book "Limits to Growth" of 1972. The Chinese took this message to heart and introduced a one-child policy in 1979. Now China is vying with the US and will soon pass the US in GDP. Politicians, both liberal and conservative, seem to believe in everlasting growth. Global warming is a message from Mother Earth that growth must eventually end. The problems suffered by the Knapps are one of the first effects of overpopulation.

  142. Here and in the prior piece, Mr. Kristof, along with his co-author Ms. WuDunn, layout my what amounts to my political-economic and social world view. People must take responsibility for themselves, yes, but also for our fellow Americans, and even for all human beings. The welfare queen narrative of the Reagan era draws a reaction from me along the lines of, yeah, some people are lazy and just take, but that does not stop me from wanting to help. And when the political right talks about a culture of dependency, they act as if charity makes people lazy. But it doesn't. The culture of dependency narrative does get something right though, and Mr. Kristof makes it clear: if people do not have access to good jobs, it gets really hard to make a good life. The key is to ditch the political-economic ideologies and just seek policies that can help people. And no, lower taxes doesn't cut it.

  143. I like this somewhat 'angry' column. Angry by Kristoff standards anyway. I totally agree that we, including government, have a responsibility to give potential at-risk individuals choices and opportunities; to see human capital as an opportunity. And not to engage in the 'personal responsibility' narrative when all it does is give a pass to those of us in better circumstances. Policy eugenics. On the other hand, I find most of Kristoff's columns somewhat fawning to the greedy, selfish political leadership that makes his old hometown so miserable. As if he thinks he's helping them and us understand the consequences of their cruel and selfish actions. Like they don't already know. They understand. They just don't care. We understand. We care. But some leadership, particularly those who affiliate with the R's, need a constant dose of the personal responsibility narrative. Please continue to call them out.

  144. The surname of Kristof's friends caught my eye because Knapp is a common name in Connecticut. I was reminded of Goody Knapp, who in 1653 was hanged in Fairfield for witchcraft. We no longer hang as witches those who don't fit in, we simply let them die "deaths of despair," including descendants of the Knapps who went west to settle Oregon.

  145. I almost hate to say this, but in German ‘knapp’ means ‘almost but not quite’ or ‘short’ in the sense of ‘short on cash‘.

  146. The Knapps started out white, mostly male and according to you, smart. They could have joined the military, gone to community college or moved to North Dakota to work in an oil field. They could have gone to Alaska to work in a salmon canning plant. Instead they apparently chose to sell drugs or commit other crimes (13 years in the state pen; what was that for?). They had each other. They had free primary and secondary education, which you know doesn't exist in many parts of the world. Your solution seems to be that they should have been on Medicaid (which they probably were) or been given more "compassion," but by whom?

  147. @Anne "They had free primary and secondary education, which you know doesn't exist in many parts of the world." Wouldn't it be better if we could brag that we were better than all the countries on the planet and had free post secondary education? What if community college was free? What a GREAT country we could say we were, instead of patting ourselves on the back that we had the same education as some third world countries and better education than other third world countries.

  148. @Anne The quality of public education varies a lot from place to place. Some public schools don't prepare kids for college. Community college costs money. Textbooks cost a lot. What about a car to get to campus? How to keep a job and also go to classes? My friends on the board of my community college worry about the high percent of students who are homeless and try to raise money for on-campus laundry and shower facilities for them and unobtrusive free pantries.

  149. Not everyone can get in to the military even if they want to. The military doesn’t take you if you have certain health problems, and for good reason. Out of the 4 kids in my generation from my family, only 2 would have been allowed in due to medical issues. They don’t want people who might have an asthma attack in a battle or who can’t pass the eye test even with glasses. And moving requires money, especially when you are talking about moving from a lower wage area to a higher wage one. Everything costs more, and one must save enough money to live on until that job offer comes. Hard to do that when your current job pays peanuts.

  150. In October 2018, I lost my cousin. We had been close as kids but drifted apart due to many circumstances as we grew up. It only slowly came to light she died from chronic opioid abuse that all but her closest family and friends knew about. She wanted help. But she lived in Alabama and it offered her no healthcare, so there was, of course, no help for this tricky situation. She tried to detox at home. She was six-months younger than me and left behind two little boys. A few months later, my sister-in-law took her life by overdosing on Xanax. Maybe my cousin's death gave her the final reason to check out. I don't know. She had had an extremely difficult and sad life, and while she had had some therapy thanks to a stint in prison, it wasn’t enough. She felt utterly alone and old. The last time I spoke with her I told her she was still pretty. It wasn't enough to make a difference, but I'm glad I said it when no one else did. She was nine-months younger than me and left behind four children. I just turned 39 five-days ago. We are failing these people. They are not failing us. The sooner people get over the Victorian mindset of they’re weak/deserved it/it’s their own fault, then the sooner we can save lives and let children keep their parents.

  151. Mr. Kristoff is correct. Blaming the poor for being poor goes back millennia, with 19th century England denouncing "the undeserving poor". In this country, with the Technology Revolution, old industries die and take with them jobs and ways of life, as quality education and healthcare are underfunded and become accessible only to those with money, - so the Industrial Revolution of Dicken's time yielded the same comfortable callousness: "Are there no Prisons? Are there no workhouses?" "Many would rather die than go there". "If they are going to die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population." When the Comfortable blame the poor for their condition it alleviates the discomfort caused by the fear of becoming poor themselves, and guilt of doing nothing about it. One may add that self-destructive behavior is universally shared by all monetary classes: the well off frequently exhibit the same self-destructive behaviors as the poor, however perhaps the well-off should blame themselves for not accessing the available healthcare and counseling their money can provide.

  152. The well off can afford rehab, have savings in the event of a job loss or illness that the working poor simply do not have.

  153. I think what many folks find frustrating, and I know I am one of them, is the way many of these wounds, particularly in rural areas are POLITICALLY self-inflicted. People in conservative rural areas vote for politicians who make cuts to the kinds of programs that would help these folks. They cut funding to local rural schools, rural infrastructure, Medicaid expansion that would help in access to health care and the kinds of social programs that offer help to rural areas. Yet they continue to vote for the very politicians who do this to them because those politicians rail against minorities and urban areas. These politicians systematically undercut unions and other worker protections as well that would lead to better wages and working conditions. There is a certain amount of schadenfreude involved and I admit to some of it myself. It is hard to feel compassionate towards those who seem motivated by their own resentments and bigotry to other parts of the country. I know in Wisconsin that is exactly the case. Rural areas vote republican and then complain when their quality of life diminishes when republicans do exactly what they say they will do.

  154. @C D In one research project in Kentucky, it was found that very poor people and the disabled did not vote at all. They didn't think they were allowed to.

  155. Even if they know they can, just getting there to do so can be very difficult.

  156. This is heartbreaking--not just what happened to the Knapp family & those like them, but the meanness that greets it, which seems so prevalent, built into so many of our so-called social welfare policies that seem to skimp & punish & blame. And what I really don't get is how so many people who do or could benefit from more compassionate policies embrace the mean ones, just because someone else might be getting something for "nothing." I can see why politicians, in thrall to special interests and corporate overlords, promote policies that keep all the country's wealth moving ever upwards--but how & why do people who suffer from such an approach so enthusiastically take it up? Why not err on the side of compassion? There's no downside, ever, finally.

  157. One could argue that by withholding reasonable social service funding, including inadequate funding of public schools where people learn civics, those elected help nurture a less educated public, which in turn, is more likely to secede (through group think /ignorance/fear) the power of the electorate to which they belong, to those already in power, thus ever increasing the disparity. Sadly, I fear this has been a strategy perpetrated in our country, rather than an unintended consequence of some other policy (?trickle down economics). If it is allowed to continue the American Experiment will sadly demonstrate only that which history has already documented time and time again. An educated electorate has so much more opportunity and capability - - exactly the reason the Right invests in this narrative of personal, rather than social, responsibility.

  158. I agree. Those who live in poverty or died of despair in this country have probably felt that there’s no choice. I know many of them personally, too — I work with disadvantaged patients in a poor neighborhood here in the Bay Area. But so often the problem is that people don’t see their opinions, and what they lack is inspiration. Check out the “frost boy” in China — featured in NY Times a few days ago. The 8-year-old walked to school on an extremely cold day, and his hair was frozen. What Westerners see from this story is poverty and inequality, but in China it’s about determination and inspiration. Most of my poorest patients here still own cars. Sorry, Nick, your article and book don’t offer much help to the poor in the US. You seem to be solidifying the narrative of doom, while what people need most is hope. The problem of this country, as I can see as an immigrant, is the ideological division. Both policy and personal responsibility are important, but both sides of the political divide only argue their own points. They rarely hear each other, and nobody is truly interested in solving the problem.

  159. It’s impossible to hold any kind of a job in many places in this country without a car. Public transportation does not exist in much of the US.

  160. Many good points, but I'm not sure the car crash analogy is one of them. Safety features protect us not just from ourselves but from other drivers -- drivers who might be driving irresponsibly no matter how responsible we are.

  161. @Bill Warford The analogy is valid. A company making billions in profits that does not pay its fair share of taxes is "driving" irresponsibly with respect to the community they are in. Doesn't matter how responsible the workers are.

  162. I’m not sure where we changed our country’s War on Poverty to the War on the Poor but it will be our country’s demise if we keep this up. A civilization only stays great if we plant trees in whose shade we will not live long enough to sit under. Thank you for calling out the mean-spirited amongst us. They should feel the shame here. Not the struggling poor.

  163. @Laura I think Ronald Reagan's "Welfare Queen" political ads were the start of our transforming LBJ's War on Poverty into today's GOP's War on the Poor.

  164. Nothing in the original story said anything about treatment or services denied. It read as if the writer slapped together some bad results for these people with observations about the entire country, but nothing detailed about how these people personally moved through the systems he dislikes. Just because these people had failures does not mean the system failed them. It could have, but we won’t know by reading the articles.

  165. Republicans have a cognitive defect, in that they cannot understand the concept of multiple causes. In their minds, if an individual's choice of a particular action is the last link in a long chain of causes, that choice is the only cause. Well over a century ago, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim noticed that suicide rates differed greatly among different countries, and they did so consistently year after year. What could be more individual and personal than the choice to commit suicide? Yet clearly that choice is influenced by social factors.

  166. Working in community health with high risk teens. Absolutely agree with NK’s column. Much appreciated.

  167. I agree with you, Mr. Kristof. As a nation, we have invested heavily in war, but not in our people, and the damage is all around us.

  168. I see an effort to make "middle class" people hate the needy. I see it in facebook posts that depict needy people as lazy and "taking" from hard-working taxpayers. I hear people say, "Why should fast food workers get $15/hour? Why don't they get more education?" Many of these who put down the less fortunate call themselves Christians . There is no empathy for those who fall on hard times. Where have these attitudes come from?

  169. Even if everyone had a STEM degree some people would still have to work these low wage service jobs. There aren’t enough well paying jobs for everyone who wants them. Someone still has to change the diapers at the nursing home, watch the kids at the daycare, cook the food, do the laundry.

  170. Priorities. Military Spending in the United States. In fiscal year 2015, military spending is projected to account for 54 percent of all federal discretionary spending, a total of $598.5 billion. A strong country would put children at the top of it's priorities and not accept a +20% childhood poverty rate in "greatest country." For those ready to pounce by saying "they" should not have children they cannot provide for . . .the children are already here - its up to us adults to sort this out and help. Better schools, longer school day, well paid teachers. There is lots we can do once we stop funding 19 year wars.

  171. @Kat Perkins I agree that "A strong country would put children at the top of it's [email protected] and it's especially ironic that 30 years ago a world meeting of leaders - in New York - agreed to do that. In September 1990, the World Summit for Children met in NYC at the UN - When one US President DID care about the children of the world - and that included the USA: ''We are gathered to speak for the children of the earth,'' Mr. Bush said in his address. ''Let us affirm in this historic summit that these children can be saved when we live up to our responsibilities as a world community of adults, of parents.'' As the 30th anniversary of the WSC approaches, it's time to take stock of how our children are treated. In the USA, in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Iraq. Wherever children hope to be alive at five.

  172. This is why we need Andrew Yang. He has emphasized that the deterioration of America is a systemic, not a personal problem, and that America has become too punitive, largely based on the ideal of the meritocracy. Having poverty in the most successful nation ever is just a choice. 1000$ a month for all adult citizens would be a massive boost to the middle and working class, with 94% of Americans getting a net benefit under Yang's plan. Studies show that when poor people are given money, they spend it normally, on food for their families and effectively treat it as normal income. We can effectively eliminate poverty. The choice is ours.

  173. Of course, Mr. Kristof's depiction of the tragic Knapp family arouses instinctive compassion but, somehow, Mr. Kristof's invocation of government programs to help similar families has a tired ring. More investment in children! More investment in minority communities! More drug treatment programs! These all have their place, but they have been tried in progressive states like New York and California with terribly disappointing results. Perhaps a large part of the problem is loss of spiritual faith in older values that progressives have no use for - patriotism, religious observance, recognition of the many men who sacrifice for their families as good men, concern for hard working citizens who lose their jobs because of outsourcing to other countries or lay-offs due to environmental concerns like the coal industry, concern for putting our own citizens first ahead of illegal immigrants who require big investment in social services. I think that huge numbers of middle income and working class families have been demoralized by lack of social concern for their values and needs. Progressives are typically the rich and elitists who cannot identify with the human needs of the working class and they have no interest in changing their perspective. There's the pity.

  174. These programs have been a drop in a very large bucket. Of course it won’t work if we don’t devote enough actual resources to the problem.

  175. Oh yeah, and that coal industry? What’s killing it is that it is more expensive than cleaner alternatives. Cheap natural gas is what is really killing coal. It’s a zombie industry and propping it up indefinitely is not the answer. Put the resources into helping people find other work. If we have to create it with public works projects, fine.

  176. People hear about someone who's overcome extraordinary odds to succeed, and promptly use their example to claim that everyone else should've been able to do the same. Something's fundamentally wrong with a society and economic system that creates so many obstacles, only amazing individuals can overcome them.

  177. Given the comments you printed I would like to add mine. That the government is poisoning its own people. That they have made the people obese and given them diabetes by pushing the cheapest food possible in an attempt to increase profits. Furthermore it is the cheapest foods that cause the most harm. HFCS, Artificial sweeteners, Chicken with double the normal growth rate, Foods with the fat removed and lots more. The list goes on and on with the most affected being the poor. What this country needs is a level playing field.

  178. @Allan And of course, Trump is lowering nutrition standards for school meals to pander to the GOP racially-mediated hatred of Michelle Obama. And the processed-food lobby. The burden of poor nutrition—including making learning more difficult—will fall, not surprisingly, largely on poor kids. Compounding the ill effects is the fact that many of these kids already live in food deserts.

  179. It’s not surprising the poor make the choices they do. Many times I’ve had to buy food that was cheap and unhealthy if I wanted the food to last until my next paycheck. Or I was running from one job to the other & couldn’t go home and cook. Perhaps if people could make a living on one job this wouldn’t be necessary.

  180. Well said, Mr. Kristoff. I am sorry for the loss of your friends. I do find it sad, and a bit infuriating, that we as a nation are only now paying attention to 'deaths of despair' when they are affecting the white working class. African-Americans have been suffering from deaths of despair, poverty, drug addiction, broken families, withering communities, and hopelessness for a very, very long time. The white working class is getting a taste of what it's like to be black in America. I don't think they like it much.

  181. Excellent point, Odin. “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

  182. The biggest factor here to me was that these kids were given a choice either explicitly or tacitly that neither I ( around the sane age) nor my mother NOR my grandmother was given: to drop out of high school and not go to college. Finishing school was the minimum expected in our family and this was true even in 1912 when my grandmother was told by her stepmother that she must work hard in high school and go to college ( that’s a lesson her step mother imparted that was courtesy of being a “spinster” until she was 45 and thus had to make her own way). The huge benefit of being raised this way was never clearer to me than in reading the story of the Knapps. I was very lucky that the choice felt out of my hands.

  183. @AJ As a new nurse and college graduate, I was mystified that some of the nurse’s aides were resentful and disrespectful. When I asked a colleague, “Why don’t they go to college and become nurses?”, her answer gave me pause: “It’s not possible for everyone to do what you did. Some don’t have the money and others don’t have the ability.” Like you, not finishing high school and attending college wasn’t an option for me, but not everyone is so fortunate. In fact, we are a fortunate minority. Better vocational options at the high school level are another necessary educational investment.

  184. I got sober when I was 15 and remain sober to this day, many decades later. I would not have made it this far without the excellent help I recieved in the form of rehab, counseling, a strong church community, and a recovery community. I was lucky, many of my friends died. Taking care of each other is a hugely labor-intensive process. A society that cruelly blames misfortune on the misfortunate combined with an arrogance that every bit of good fortune was the well-deserved outcome of self-reliance leaves no room for the work we all need to do to help each other through difficulties. Life is very hard. It is harder for some than it is for others. Why is a mystery, but we need to help each other.

  185. We had raised our children in a good environment-loving parents, good schools, safe neighborhood, advanced educational opportunities. But, there are no guarantees why some succeed, while others struggle. It is all a mystery to me - and one of our life’s great tragedies! One of our adult children pled guilty in the last few years to a felony, has struggled with addictions for years, opioids etc, creating a pattern of sabotaging behaviors. While he/she is not a “victim,” we have seen first hand the travesty of the criminal justice system- “self incarceration” through ankle bracelets that you pay for, draconian restrictions that make work impossible; randomly scheduled meetings with pre trial officers; random UA’s that you pay for, etc., a system that seems designed to encourage you to fail. Right or wrong, we were able to be a minimal safety net for our adult child as he/she has tried to piece life together, hiring a private defense attorney and providing a financial safety net so he/she wouldn’t be homeless. We should get a tax credit for saving our state government thousands and thousands of dollars that they would have spent had he/she sat in county jail, waiting for the day in court, represented by a PD! Who knows what the outcome will be in our adult child’s life, but the tragedies you describe in your article and book know no economic boundaries. The only difference is that we have been able to be a limited private safety net, believing that second chances are possible.

  186. And that limited safety net is HUGE. Your child has at least some chance of beating this. Someone without that safety net has almost none.

  187. The Republican "personal responsibility" narrative obviously doesn't apply to wealthy Republican donors. They have benefited from a host of government give-a-ways over many decades, including (to name only a few) reduced tax rates for the highest income earners, special tax deductions that can only be taken by wealth-driven businesses like private equity funds, easing of environmental laws to allow certain businesses to avoid taking responsibility for the pollution they cause, and deregulation of banks that put billions into the pockets of wealthy bankers but led to the 2008 financial meltdown and recession. Funny how I never heard Republicans say that "social Darwinism" should apply to the bankers who tanked the economy in 2008 or, as another example, Donald Trump when he bankrupted his casinos and other companies.

  188. The social narrative propped up by the social Darwinists is too reassuring to give up. Even those who hit bottom cling to its teachings. Sometimes the idea that you have the power to change things independently; by sheer will and brute energy, is more reassuring than the reality that you are helpless and will most likely not survive without either state or divine intervention.

  189. Of all people, a neurosurgeon, Ben Carson should understand the neurological circumstances undergirding the "deaths of despair" and the vast majority of suicides. People experience "despair" or "joy" differently. There are many people in the exact same circumstances of "despair" which you describe who do not commit suicide. But, the different outcomes is almost always attributable to brain disease or lack therof. It has nothing to do with personal responsibility. One of the greatest problems behind the deaths of despair is a broad failure to understand that suicide always follows depression. When the brain tells itself to kill itself the brain is malfunctioning. We call this, when we acknowledge it at all, "mental illness." The problem with the term is that it is self-stigmatizing. The brain is a physical organ, poorly understood in comparison to the heart or the kidney, whose performance is governed by the laws of physics and biochemistry. It is not a mind, because no one knows what a mind is. It can not be seen or examined or repaired. The term mental illness puts persons with brain disease in a different and lesser category than those with physical illness. Deaths of despair are ultimately the result of an untreated brain disease. I urge you to acknowledge the brain disease aspect of almost all suicides.

  190. Very well said. I'm always so glad when I see a voice out there making these arguments because so much of that insight is sorely lacking from today's mainstream media and endless punditry. I think it's easier for people to pin the blame on the individual not only because we've been so ingrained to think that way, but also because it makes it easier to turn away and not have to feel sympathy or empathy for those who are suffering.

  191. I suggest Mr. Kristof and others read the Times interview with Bernie Sanders, where he repeatedly talks about bringing back compassion for our fellow citizens, and how helping the less fortunate and mentally unhealthy among us makes things better for all of us, individually and collectively. Especially relevant to Mr. Kristof’s question(s) about who is responsible for the anguish and despair of so many in our country is found towards the end of the interview, when the Editorial Board asks him about faith and spirituality. From the interview: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. All right? I believe that. And in many respects, that’s exactly what our campaign is based on. It’s based on, on justice. I believe in justice. That’s the core of what our campaign is about.” “I believe that all human beings share a common humanity, no matter the color of our skin or where we were born. I believe we have common dreams and aspirations for our kids.”

  192. The notion that working class people “thrived” fifty or seventy or a hundred years ago betrays such a profound ignorance of history that the only proper reaction is to shrug. Hasn’t the author read Dickens’ “Hard Times”? A hundred years ago, children worked in coal mines. How about the fact that the life expectancy in the 1930s and even 50s was much lower than today across the globe? The 1950s, which for some incomprehensible reason, seem to be seen as a utopia in the US, were a horrible time of female disenfranchisement, racism, poverty across the globe, and the ongoing class genocide in Eastern Europe and China. We are living in a great time in history, probably the best humanity has ever had. Some people fall by the wayside, for sure. So what?

  193. “So what”, Mor ?! We can do much better as a country with a better safety net, better healthcare, living wages, and better public education funded by a better taxation system.... as opposed to our current trickle-down poverty policies that are the disgrace of the Western world. Please grow a heart.

  194. To answer your headline the fault was initially their own but their country abandoned them. America can so much better but with tax cuts for the rich and free food for millionaires it looks like a lost cause. I am near to giving up on this country and humanity. I know there are millions of good people but there are millions more who are not.

  195. I grew up with my three sisters in a nice town and went off to a good college, and so did my sisters in turn. So far as I know not one of us have even been arrested for, let alone addicted to, illegal drugs or anything else. Boring, I know. As much as I am willing to blame "society" for part of the Knapp family failure, I still think the Knapps (and Knapp parents) did a lot of this to themselves with truly bad choices. And maybe some hideously bad parenting? I am struggling to recall what exactly my mother and father said or did, or if anything that was assumed and unsaid, but communicated, to make it obvious that drug addiction and criminality was NOT a good career choice. Yes I know that society would be better if we could (and we can) avoid these problems in the first place. As the one time owner of a trucking business, I am not opposed to even dangerous addictive drugs being legal; but those drugs really are dangerous to the users and to the public, particularly if people operating and maintaining heavy machinery are still recovering from the effects of taking those drugs. I do not mean to sound smug about all this, we can do something, and we should. But I keep coming back to the responsibility of the parents, and their relationship to their children.

  196. @Richard I grew up in a little mill town with neighbors who saw no need for college. Our family had educated role models in the extended family. I and my siblings went off to college on "Sputnik money," education grants and loans meant to help the U.S. catch up with the Russians. Who will finance poor kids' college educations now?

  197. These parents are under constant stress. People under a lot of stress make mistakes. Don’t be so quick to judge.

  198. both...everyone exercises the responsibility of choice...but what choices are available?..."“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living" Karl Marx ....and that same that inheritance... of all dead generations provides great wealth to some, in a human family which has disinherited the majority of siblings