Back Row America: the Fascinating Work of Chris Arnade

This article originally appeared in Philanthropy Daily on May 23, 2019. 

If philanthropists are going to use their grants for fighting poverty in the most productive way, they need to know what the poor are like. That’s a task that’s much harder than you might expect. Far too many reporters, determined to build their brands on social media, have forgotten that when they report, their primary task is to write about other people, not themselves. In addition, far too many writers show up in a low-income area determined not to write about what they see, but in finding people who will confirm their existing prejudices.

It may well be Chris Arnade’s strength as someone who writes about poverty that he hasn’t had any journalistic training. In fact, a 2016 interview in the Columbia Journalism Review tells that magazine’s readers that Arnade is not a journalist because he pays poor people to have their photos taken.

Arnade has been writing about poor people for some time, but this piece in First Things is the first article I’ve read by him. It is excerpted from his forthcoming book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, which Sentinel will publish in June.

First Things and Sentinel are conservative outlets. But Arnade, in a 2017 interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, says he “identifies as a socialist” and thinks the best way to help the poor is a hefty increase in the minimum wage.

All of this background makes clear that Arnade isn’t predictable, which makes him interesting. The excerpt from Arnade’s book made good sense to me, and I’d like to read more of his work.

Arnade got a doctorate in physics, but like many scientists who are very good at math, ended up working in finance. He became a bond trader working for Citibank. “I spent my work days sitting behind a wall of computers, gambling on flashing numbers, on a downtown Manhattan trading floor filled with hundreds of other people who did exactly the same thing.”

He lived in a nice Brooklyn neighborhood, with neighbors who were, like him, part of the cognitive elite:

Like most successful and well-educated people, especially in New York City, I considered myself open-minded, considerate, and reflective about my privilege. I read three ­papers daily, I watched documentaries on our social problems, and I voted for and supported policies that I felt recognized and addressed my privilege. I gave money and time to charities that focused on ­poverty and injustice.

But his life wasn’t satisfying. He began taking long walks. These walks began to go into dodgy neighborhoods. After taking a buyout from Citibank, he decided to spend more time with the poor, listening to their stories and taking their photos. He says that, like many successful people, he is part of “front row America” and he wanted to know what life was like for people in the “back row.”

His great insight is this: Suppose you are a poor person who doesn’t have a job. What are your days like?

You could spend your time dealing with bureaucracies: welfare offices, courts, prison, emergency rooms. All of these places, Arnade says, are to the poor “sterile institutions that chew them up and then spit them out. ”

These are institutions that back row Americans have to navigate like mice working their way through a maze. Each hour waiting in the hospital, the courthouse, or the intake center is an hour that numbs them. An hour of forms to be filled out and absurd rules to be followed.

But there’s one place where everyone is welcome. “For many back row Americans, the only places that regularly treat them like humans are churches.”

These churches are storefront places. They are probably not connected to national denominations. They also have rules. If you enter, you will hear a sermon. You will be preached to. But you won’t be looked down upon.

“The churches understand the streets, understand everyone is a sinner and everyone fails,” Arnade writes. In fact, most of the preachers in the inner cities climbed out of them. By contrast, “the cold, secular world of the well-intentioned” keeps the poor at arm’s length and does nothing to help them.

Arnade kept hearing stories of poor people who went to church and straightened out their lives. They found “discipline and order” when they found God. He gives a few examples in this chapter, and I suspect he has many more in his book.

He says that after attending hundreds of services, he began to understand that there are events in the world that can’t be fully explained. Eat the right foods, have the right job, and you have all the answers in life, right? He says a storefront church asks questions that can’t be answered.

“It is far easier to recognize that one must come to peace with the idea that we don’t and never will have this under control,” he concludes. “It is far easier to see religion not only as useful, but as true.”

Far too many philanthropists—and the program officers who work for them—are front-row people. They prefer to judge their grantees through metrics, logic models, and things that can be counted and who can hire writers who speak the regrettably arcane language of philanthropy.

I remember once reading a piece by Joe Loconte, once with the Heritage Foundation and now with The King’s College, explaining that he had heard about donors who thought it important to count the number of crosses in a religious institution. But these donors couldn’t judge whether a storefront church or a rescue mission saves lives of the down and out.

Arnade’s work should lead philanthropists to ask: what are the storefront churches that are doing good work in our city? And what are we doing to help them?

Martin Morse Wooster†

Wooster was a senior fellow at the Capital Research Center. He is the author of three books: Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds (Pacific Research Institute, 1994), The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor…
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