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Working class in US faces ‘humanitarian crisis’: Nicholas Kristof

Max Zahn with Andy Serwer
·3 min read

The latest weekly jobless claim numbers released on Thursday showed a glimmer of hope as they fell below 800,000 last week for the first time since mid-March, but the figure remains well above pre-pandemic levels.

Meanwhile, a study published earlier this month found 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty since May, and food banks report an uptick in traffic. The most likely source of large-scale relief, a new stimulus measure, has proven elusive.

Even before the pandemic, the working class faced a “humanitarian crisis,” says New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof, who compared widespread hardship in the U.S. to what he witnessed while reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American economy requires “fundamental changes” to address inequality and enhance economic opportunity, he told Yahoo Finance in a new interview.

Kristof, who has written for the New York Times in various capacities since 1984, co-created a new documentary entitled “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” based on a book co-authored with his wife and former Times reporter Sheryl WuDunn that chronicles how rising inequality has impacted his hometown of Yamhill, Oregon.

“My wife Sheryl and I were traveling around the world and covering humanitarian crises abroad,” he says. “And we would go back periodically to our family farm where my mom still lives, and we saw a humanitarian crisis unfolding right here in working class America.”

“A quarter of the kids on my old school bus are now dead from drugs, alcohol and suicide,” he adds. “The same thing happened in West Virginia; it happened in northern Maine; it happened in so many parts of this country to the working class.”

“We as a country have to face this failure,” he says.

In recent decades, income growth has concentrated in high-income households while the portion of Americans in the middle class has shrunk, the Pew Research Center found in research published in January. Over the past 20 years, drug overdoses have increased significantly, the Centers for Disease Control says.

Billionaires in the U.S. have added over half a trillion dollars in wealth over the first six months of the coronavirus outbreak, according to a report released by left-leaning think tank The Institute for Policy Studies and advocacy group Americans for Tax Fairness.

Meanwhile, tens of millions of workers have lost their jobs, exacerbating the inequality that had already reached heightened levels before the pandemic. The pandemic has also caused a spike in opioid deaths, the New York Times reported last month.

New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof appears on "Influencers with Andy Serwer."
New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof appears on "Influencers with Andy Serwer."

Kristof spoke to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

He said the socioeconomic circumstances of one’s birth should not determine one’s life outcome.

“The fact that you can predict a child's outcome based on the ZIP code in which they are born, should be a scandal,” he says.

“The fact that in at least three American counties, life expectancy is shorter than in Cambodia, or Bangladesh,” he adds.

The three counties, two in South Dakota and one in North Dakota, include large Native American communities that have suffered disproportionately severe effects from the pandemic, Kristof wrote in the New York Times in April.

“That's not because those kids are showing a lack of personal responsibility; it’s because we as a country are showing a lack of personal responsibility,” Kristof said.

He called on Congress to pass a stimulus package but warned that a deal may not materialize anytime soon.

“The fact that we can't manage a new stimulus package — when 10% of American households with children now say they don't have enough food in the last week — is just unconscionable,” he says.

“I worry if it doesn't happen before the election, that it won't happen before January either,” he adds.

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