In an effort to rethink the conversation around poverty, author Chris Arnade’s new book, ‘Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America’, pushes aside decades of academic detachment, instead encouraging those who have been left out of prosperity to describe their own experiences. This week, Chris joins Goldy for a wide-ranging conversation about poverty, addiction, and inequality.
Chris Arnade is a writer and photographer covering addiction and poverty in America. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and the Washington Post, among many others.
Our forgotten towns: struggle, resilience, love and respect in ‘back-row America’: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jun/05/america-dignity-chris-arnade-book-extract-poverty
Dignity on IndieBound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780525534730
David G.: Hey Pitchfork listeners, Goldy here. You know, we read a lot of books in preparation for the podcast and sometimes these books just stand out in a way that they deserve their own standalone episode. So this week, I had a conversation with Chris Arnade, who is the author of Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, which chronicles his exploration of poverty in America, face-to-face, meeting up with people in cities and towns across the country. It’s a beautiful book that paints an intimate picture of poverty in America through pictures and words, and I urge you all to pick up a copy.
Hi Chris, this is David Goldstein. Thanks for joining us. I was going to say I really enjoyed your book. It’s not enjoyable in many ways because it’s such a bleak picture sometimes.
Chris A.: Yeah. It’s one of those things where it’s, the like buttons doesn’t really capture it, necessarily.
David G.: Yeah. So if we could just start by having you say your name, describe who you are, and of course, plug your book.
Chris A.: I’m Chris Arnade. I’m a writer and photographer. I spent the last, I guess, wow, seven years driving around the United States, talking to what I call back row Americans, people who generally don’t get interviewed a lot, all across the States. I put 200,000 miles on my car doing that and focusing on the reviews on many things: addiction, poverty, community. And what I found over those five years and seven years of interviewing people is what I call, that’s basically the title of my book, dignity. I found that, by going to towns that people told me not to go to, that are stigmatized as places that are not worth living in, I found a lot of frustration, but I also found a lot of people striving to maintain the title of my book, dignity.
David G.: And I think it’s clear from the book why you titled it Dignity. The subtitle, if you could elaborate on, you say Seeking Respect in Back Row America. Why the choice of words, “Back Row?”
Chris A.: Well, one of the things that I found during my time out doing this project was, I felt like the largest division I was seeing in the country, one that I don’t think was being spoken a lot about is, what I call it, is an educational divide. That the places I was going to were very diverse racially, some were entirely African-American, some were entirely Mexican-American, somewhere entirely white, was diverse geographically. I mean, I went everywhere. I went from Utah to California to Arizona to Maine to Pennsylvania, and despite all the very big differences, what united them, besides a uniform frustration and a uniform desire for dignity, was the bulk of the residents in these communities were people who hadn’t excelled at school.
They will have a high school degree probably, but not much more than that. And if they went to university, it was usually a smaller state school or a community college or a trade school. These communities were defined largely by a lack of high educational credentials and, which was in contrast to where I had come from and who I was. I have a PhD in physics. I was a Wall Street trader for 20 years, and I lived in a very elite, wealthy Brooklyn neighborhood. And I had come from a world that largely dominates the media, largely dominates our institutions and our politics, is what I call the front row. People who have a lot of elite educational credentials, who have postgraduate degrees.
And that contrast, I call that the front row, the old school analogy, that’s the kid who sat in the front, seeking the teacher’s attention, versus the kid who sat in the back, worried about the teacher’s attention. And I ran with that analogy as being what I thought was still very prevalent in our society and very important. It’s almost like that difference, the difference between people who have a lot of education and people who don’t have a lot of education is, in my mind, far more important, very much a driver of today’s politics and today’s issues that dominate the news.
David G.: But clearly from what you saw in your journey, it wasn’t always that way. Education wasn’t such a dividing line. A lot of these cities and towns you visited used to have a thriving middle-class, a working class, and today it’s very different.
Chris A.: Right. I think what’s happened is, the reward from having education and the punishment that comes from not having education, that’s changed. That’s gotten more dramatic. So, one of the things I found in every community I went to was, one of the lines I heard many, many times said over and over by so many different people was something of the variation of, “I could walk out of high school into a lifetime job, a lifetime job that had stability and paid me well, and I could build a life around.” I heard variations of that phrase everywhere. And it was a uniform sense of, “This is lost.” This stability that, almost always from elder, from retirees who would say, “The stability I had and that enabled me to raise a family and enabled our community to build itself up and raise children, is gone. And I don’t see my children or my grandchildren having that.” So I think, at the center, was a very deep economic driver that has magnified the difference between people who have educations and people who don’t have educations.
David G.: Right. Because in the aggregate, we’ve never been better educated. I mean, more people across the country have high school and college degrees than ever before. It’s the economic circumstances that seem to have clearly changed over the past 50 years.
Chris A.: Right. Again, I think the person I will always remember, I think, I forget her name, I believe her name was Susan, was in Battle Creek, Michigan. And that’s, I don’t know if all your listeners know the significance of Battle Creek, but that’s where Kellogg’s Cereal is generally made and post cereal. And the town literally, everybody should go there because they literally does smell like cereal. But a lot of the people, a lot of the factories have left. There’s far less jobs in the factories there. But I think she’s the one who told me, she said, “I’m glad I’m not young anymore and I don’t mind being old.” And I said, “Well, come on, everybody wants to be young again, have long life.”
She goes, “Well, no, I don’t want the life my grandchildren are going to have to face, the one where they’re struggling check the check. They can’t count on a check enough to buy a home and then have children.” And she says, “We could do that.” She literally walked out of high school onto the factory floor and so did her husband, and they described themselves as having had pretty good lives even though they they’ve never gone to college.
David G.: I’m wondering, when you started out on this, it came after 20 years as a bond trader on Wall Street, how the reality of poverty that the people in their neighborhoods, how it was different from what you had expected when you started out?
Chris A.: I think there are three things, three takeaways, that I kind of tell my old bond trader self and my friends in that world. One is, it’s not as dangerous as you expect. There’s a stigma attached to these neighborhoods, that they’re violent. And the places I went, especially the urban settings, have crime rates that are 10 to 20 times higher than the “safe neighborhoods.” But people forget that, even though there are 10 to 20 times higher, the overwhelming number of residents still abide by the law. In a safe neighborhood, 2% of the people are breaking crimes and in a poor neighborhood, a bad neighborhood, it’s 8%. But still, 92% of the people are still doing their best and playing by the rules. And so, personal safety was never an issue. I happen to be a man, so I think it’s different for females. But you know, I went into places where I was told not to go because it was “dangerous”, and I had never once faced a problem.
Number two is, there are more of them than I realized. They’re everywhere. I mean, they’re literally, it doesn’t take much to, I unfortunately now have the skill of being able to find “the bad neighborhood” in any town I go to, pretty quickly. Even in “our best cities”, you have pockets of poverty that are just really, in my mind, embarrassing to our country. That these exist so close to such wealth. And the third is, one of the things I hadn’t intended, I hadn’t realized as I went in thinking I knew what was best for people without really asking them. I had all the answers. If only we did X, this wouldn’t be a problem. And I, by the end of the whole process, I realized that that wasn’t only arrogant of me, but it really wasn’t right.
I mean, it’s not really my job to think I know what’s best for people without asking them. And so I think there’s this general attitude, amongst what I call the front row, that we know what’s best for the back row. You know, like, “Why are they voting against their self-interest?” is the phrase that people often use without realizing, maybe you don’t know what their self-interest is. Maybe your concept of what their self-interest is is wrong. So, it was this recognition that I really didn’t understand the back row. I didn’t understand their world view. I didn’t understand the language they used. I didn’t understand their whole world view, even though, going in, I thought I did. Because I come from a working class town, so being a bond trader was not really expected of me. But, even though I assumed, just because I had come from a working class town and I grew up in a pretty poor area, that I still understood the mentality. But I realized after spending 30 years of being removed from it, I didn’t. I didn’t understand the mentality.
David G.: It’s actually one of the things that’s unsatisfying about your book, is that you do a really good job of teaching the reader what we don’t know. I didn’t come away with any, I didn’t feel like I was better situated to come up with solutions.
Chris A.: Right. And that was a not accidental choice on my part because, well, because I don’t know if I know the solutions. Part of the whole process was me, and I hope to convey to the reader the same attitude, that it’s not clear I understand what is best, and that maybe it’s not my place to even suggest that. Maybe it’s my place to be one vote out of 50 million instead of trying to sway other people. And then, instead of telling them what they need and what I think is best for them, is letting them tell me what they think is best for them. But that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to say there wasn’t things I’ve learned that I try to convey to other people and let other people decide, based on what I learned and what I saw and what these people told me, what they think is the best solution. I don’t really want to jam my solutions down people’s throats.
David G.: You know, on this podcast we talk a lot about economics from the theoretical perspective, and one of the things people often talk about is economic mobility. What struck me from your book was the lack of literal mobility in these communities. That it’s not fair to say, I mean, some people are stuck where they are because they can’t afford to move, but they’re also there because that’s their home and they have family. That’s where they want to be, despite the utter lack of opportunity.
Chris A.: I think what the economic profession, I don’t want to economic-splain to experts, but in my opinion, one of things the economic profession gets wrong is they often, it’s easily dismiss things that can’t be measured. And so, you can’t really measure the value of place. You can’t measure the value of continuity, of being in the same place for 60 years, 70 years, and what that brings to people. I call it, in the book I call it, what I call non-credentialed forms of meaning. Things that we are gifted at birth that have value to people. One of those is place, the other is family, the other is faith. Things that aren’t tangible, necessarily, and can easily be dismissed as not having value, but in many cases have immense value to people.
That was one of the hardest things to recognize from, or at least one of the biggest things that changed my mind, is I was one of those people who just moved. I grew up in a small, working class town and I didn’t want to be there and I moved on, and I’ve moved all my life. And so, if you had talked to me maybe 15, 16 years ago or 10 years ago, I’d have been someone who said, “If I saw a town that was having problems, I’d just tell people to move. I did it. They can do it.” But, that’s just not, besides being arrogant, but that’s just not how people think. And that’s not how … People aren’t widgets that just can be moved at a moment’s notice.
One of the stories I tell them the book is of a young woman, Mexican American and in LA, who couldn’t move. She stayed to go to a local community college because she couldn’t go away to a better school. A better school, a different school, a more elite school. And the reason was because she was her mom’s translator. Her mom was first generation immigrant who doesn’t speak English. And, like most immigrant families, the second generation, the oldest daughter or oldest son act as go between. And that was her role. And so she was going to stay in the neighborhood to be there for her family. And I think that’s a very useful role for her. And she gets a lot of value out of that, her mother gets a lot of value out of that, and it’s very important to her.
And I think that sort of story I heard all over the country. Again, that’s, that non-credentialed form of meaning is something that is very valuable to people who don’t have a lot of material possessions. And to deny it by suggesting that everybody should be able to move, in many ways, is very elitist. It’s very much taking away value from the working class.
David G.: And it’s a narrative that actually runs counter to the decades of conservative arguments that a lot of the poverty is the result of the breakdown of the family and of a decline in faith, when in fact, the people you encountered, it’s family and faith that keeps them in the community.
Chris A.: There’s a double edged sword there, that it is being eroded in many cases. I think within the, what I call the back row, the number of people who are religious, the number of people who maintain strong family structures is eroding. But for the people who have it, it’s extraordinarily important. And most people want it. Most people don’t want, I mean, I think where the conservatives get very, very wrong is this idea that somehow people don’t want to have a strong family. That somehow they’re just against it. No, people want it. They just don’t have the economic means to obtain it.
It goes back to the thing that people say, “Well, you need a family. Well yeah, but you also need a house to build a family around and you need a job to be able to buy the house.” So you need to be able to put your economic house in order before having a family. And they can’t do that. So they have a family anyways. So there’s this immense desire for a family, but it doesn’t play out in the way that conservatives wish it played out. And I would argue that’s because of the economic problems.
David G.: You came at this as a photographer. I’m wondering when you go into these, in some of these towns and cities you describe, and you can see from some of your photos, that these were beautiful places at one time. I was particularly struck, you were walking through, I think it was Cairo, Illinois, and how it seemed, parts of it seemed to be totally abandoned. How tempting was it to just go back to the archives and look for the photos of what it used to be.
Chris A.: Right. I mean, Cairo is actually a fascinating place and I’ve told one of my friends who is a professor of African American studies that there needs to be a few theses written, graduate theses and that are written about Cairo, because it really is a story of so many themes in recent American history. It once was a thriving town. It’s at the juncture, I think, of the, I’m going to get this embarrassingly wrong, I think it’s the Ohio and Mississippi river come together there. And so, it’s on a peninsula and it’s just physically gorgeous. I mean, you’ve got the Mississippi on one side and the Ohio on the other and it’s just … But, traditionally I think it’s been half black, half white. And it had a long history of racism that resulted in protests in the late sixties that turned into, that were re-labeled by the white residents as riots, and then the whites left.
And so now it’s primarily just an African American town with, I think, I’m going to guess the population wrong, like 2000, 3000, 4000, that mostly live in two housing projects, isolated from everything. There is no hotel there, there is no McDonald’s. There’s like one gas station, but it’s just a really depressing place. But, at the same time, the people there are resilient and are wonderful people and many of them just don’t want to leave because it’s their home. This is a place they’ve known all their, their grandparents were born here. And so, it’s really tough to leave a place where you know everybody and everybody knows you and you’re value. And yeah, I mean, I actually went back and looked at the archives’ photos of back when Cairo was a party town where people would come and they’re go to the casinos or go out for the night clubs back in the ’50s and ’40s. And to see what it is now compared to then.
David G.: Do you imagine that there’s any way to recover some of these cities and towns?
Chris A.: I’ve been trying to think about ways to answer that question [inaudible 00:20:09]. And I think it’s the natural order of business. I mean, it’s almost like, and I think you’re seeing it in the data now, that maybe our desire to congregate in a few neighborhoods, in a few towns, has reached its peak, where people, a lot of younger people are now realizing, younger professionals are now realizing, “Hey, why am I struggling to pay $3,000 to share an apartment in Brooklyn when I could live in Prestonsburg Kentucky or I could live in Toledo, Ohio or Cleveland or Milwaukee and have a lot of the things I look for in New York City or LA, that I can also get in these smaller, midsize towns.”
So I think places like some of the places I documented, like Milwaukee and Cleveland and El Paso, that have suffered in the past, I think are going to be the recipient of people recognizing that they’re not as dangerous and they’re not as “culturally decimated” as people think they are. And there’s a lot going on. But in a place like Cairo though, in a place like some of the other smaller places that are far more rural, I don’t know what’s going to happen to them. And I don’t know there’s “an answer” beyond just slowly dying.
David G.: Oh, again, I don’t want to sound like I came away, it’s a beautiful book. It’s just, it’s depressing sometimes.
Chris A.: Yeah. And it’s hard to write a depressing book because I know, I jokingly say to my wife, I said, “I really wish I could end the book with a magical dog coming in and saving everybody and everyone being happy.” But that’s just not the way it is. You know? And I understand people don’t want to necessarily read something that’s pessimistic, but one of the one of the things I, part of the way I got a name for myself to get the book, was I predicted Trump was going to be, I didn’t want him to be elected, but I said, “This is what I think is going to happen,” and maybe people can take your book as a warning sign. I hope they can read it and say, “Hey, yeah, this looks bleak, but let’s think about ways to change it so it doesn’t play out in the ugly way.”
David G.: How much does the trade issue play? I mean, clearly a lot of these communities were devastated by the closing of factories where the work was offshored.
Chris A.: Yeah, that’s, it’s huge. And I think I could wear two hats. I have my old Wall Street hat, which understands, mathematically and economically, the value of free trade. But as I’ve said, but I could also wear my other hat where I’ve, these towns, these communities have been destroyed. And I also understand, I’m not so ideological that, I’m saying you can’t go back in time. History is path dependent and we’re on this particular path. But I think what I would hope to take out of it is, as I say, free trade is such a misnomer. I mean, what we have is highly complex negotiations between two different regulatory regimes. And maybe in the future when we negotiate those treaties, we think a little bit more about who’s in the lost column and what it means to be in the lost column and how much a loss it is.
It’s not just a factory that’s gone. It’s a factory that’s gone and then families fall apart and then drugs come in, and people die. The losses, I think, that people have tallied in the past or thought about in the past, were underestimated and I don’t think they really understood what they meant when they said there was going to be losses
David G.: Also, tallied in the aggregate as opposed to-
Chris A.: That’s correct.
David G.: Looking at the impact on individual lives.
Chris A.: Right. And so, I used to simply say, my cartoonish version was, back in the Wall Street days, we would look at our decision-making processes to run a spreadsheet, find the column heading with losses in one sale and the column heading with gains in one another sale and add them up and see if it was a positive, we would do it. And then not really dig into what the losses meant and what the positives meant. I’ll put on my old leftist hat and say also that the other assumption was somehow that we’d go into this, yeah, there’d be losers and be winners, but the winters would compensate the losers. And that never happened.
David G.: No, haven’t done that in a while. It’s funny because comparative advantage, the math works out just so perfectly on paper. You can’t argue with it. But the impact on the economy, real lives, it doesn’t turn, we don’t live our lives on paper.
Chris A.: That’s right. And I mean, that’s what I hope policy makers take away from my book, is that people aren’t widgets and they’re not blips on a computer screen. They’re actual people who have real lives. And the secondary and tertiary effects of policy can sometimes be larger than the primary effects. You can say, “Well, the secondary effect is we’re going to lose the factory. And then the tertiary effect is that we’ll lose them some jobs and some communities might have to, some people might have to move.” But in classic nonlinear fashion, those third order effects can be larger than the primary effects. And I think with the politics we’re seeing now, I think people, it’s my view that in many cases, that’s happening right now. The secondary effects and tertiary effects have now become primary.
David G.: You mentioned in the book that you feel that your industry, your old industry, Wall Street, was both responsible and largely insulated from the great recession. I’m wondering, in talking with your old Wall Street buddies, whether they share that sentiment.
Chris A.: Some do. A few do. And generally, those are the ones I talk to. Part of what frustrated me, I mean, I didn’t leave the industry until five years after the financial crisis. And part of what ended up making me leave was a realization, was the head in sand attitude a lot of us had towards the crisis. I had naively, in retrospect, thought that the industry would change dramatically after the financial crisis, and the few of us who had long argued that our industry needed to change would see some change. But I was stunned as I realize most people doubled down and actually were in denial that we had any real role in the process. And so, that was very disheartening. And ultimately, that’s partly why I left the industry. I was just really stunned at how it reacted to the financial crisis.
The one thing I do like about banking, in aggregate, bankers are very open minded, believe it or not. I say that to people and a lot of people don’t believe that. But they’re intellectually curious and open minded and I think if enough evidence comes their way, their minds can be changed. And I think with all that’s happened in the last five years, with the opioid deaths, with the politics going on globally, I think a lot of them are now rethinking their behavior and rethinking their politics.
David G.: One final question, just to ask you about all this, is why do you do this?
Chris A.: You know, I think ultimately it’s selfish. I enjoy it. I started the project when I was still working on Wall Street and then there was this kind of absurd, in retrospect, year of my life when I was trading during the day and on the weekends and at night I was going into very poor neighborhoods and spending my time with homeless addicts underneath bridges. And I couldn’t carry on both at the same time, so I ended up leaving Wall Street and mostly because I preferred, I mean, I preferred being around the homeless addicts. It was just, it was more, I found, in aggregate, I enjoyed the company more, to be honest and blunt. That’s not to say I don’t have a lot of Wall Street friends still, but it was more intellectually appealing and it was also there’s, I appreciate the honesty more.
David G.: Thank you for the work and thank you for the book.
Chris A.: And thank you for having me on.
David G.: Oh, our pleasure.
Chris A.: Thank you.
David G.: Okay, thanks. Bye. Chris Arnade paints a really uncomfortable portrait of what it’s like to live in these impoverished communities. It’s important because it’s so easy to lose perspective. Whether you were like him, a Wall Street bond trader with that 40,000 foot view of the wreckage below, or you’re like us, just a bunch of talkers in a podcast approaching all these issues from a theoretical perspective. So, while I know this wasn’t the typical sort of interview you get on Pitchfork Economics, I hope it helped you gain a little perspective, too, about the real world impact of the decisions we’re making and why it’s so important to actually achieve real, structural change.
On an upcoming episode of Pitchfork Economics, we’ll be talking about free trade. But of course, as is our wont, much of that conversation will be theoretical, so we want to hear from you. How has trade policy affected your life? Have you had a job offshored overseas? Has it been good for your business? Tell us your story. Give us a call at (731) 388-9334, and maybe we’ll use it on the air.
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