Charity and Welfare

Looking Closely at “Back Row America”: A Review of Chris Arnade’s Dignity

Last summer I noted in this post the work of Chris Arnade, a former bond trader with a doctorate in physics who decided to launch a second career taking photographs of and talking to the poor. Arnade wrote about his life with the poor in his book Dignity. He talked more about his book and his ideas in how we should treat the poor in a recent lecture at the American Enterprise Institute.

The excerpt of Arnade’s book I saw in First Things described Arnade’s experiences in the poorer parts of New York City. He explained that he has since visited much of the U.S. and has started travelling overseas, although in other countries he doesn’t carry a camera.

He explained the world of what he calls “front row America”: the sort of people who went to the right colleges, acquired the appropriate credentials, and ended up working for think tanks, law firms, universities, or as senior bureaucrats. These members of the cognitive elite tend to live and work among people very much like themselves, and far too many sneer at “flyover country.” As AEI fellow Timothy Carney noted, when Hillary Clinton said that many supporters of Donald Trump were “deplorables,” she precisely captured the way many members of the heavily-credentialed people on the top feel about those on the bottom.

The poor, or what Arnade calls “back row America,” live where they live because they value family and community over collecting the credentials needed to acquire the big prizes of life. They might remain in a town after the major employer left because that’s where their friends and family are. And when an outsider says that someone in a very poor section of America should just move to an area with plenty of work, the poor often say that the connections they make in a place are more important than higher pay.

Religion, in Arnade’s view, provides the poor with communities where they are valued for who they are and not for what colleges they attended. Religious communities also sometimes provide financial, in addition to spiritual, support. Arnade says in his travels across America that the one place he went that doesn’t have the “levels of despair” he saw in the rest of the country was Utah—because “the (Mormon) church is there. It regulates and gives people a sense of place.”

Arnade thinks of himself as a leftist, and he says he doesn’t like free trade because when a major employer moves a factory to somewhere cheaper, it is destroying the communities where the jobs were located. But he also notes that both the left and the right, in his view, really don’t like the poor.

“We silence the voice of the working class because they don’t know the language of what to speak,” Arnade says. The right sneers at them because they’re not successful, while the left puts them down because they don’t know “correct” language. As a result, neither ideology wants to listen to what poor people have to say.

Arnade notes two other distortions in how most people view the poor. He says that he travelled in many questionable areas, including talking to users in crack houses at 3:00 am. But he said he never felt his life was in danger, and no one tried to steal his very expensive camera. “Nothing bad ever happened to me,” he says, adding, “it’s an entirely different world for females.”

He also thinks it’s a false notion that the poor are angry about the very rich. Arnade said that when he travelled, he carried along the Financial Times, which has a glossy section called How To Spend It that features the latest baubles for conspicuous consumers. The poor people looked at the magazine and weren’t angry with people who could afford bespoke clothing or handmade watches. They wanted all the stuff in the magazine, and daydreamed about how they could acquire the goodies How To Spend It temptingly displayed.

What are we to make of Arnade’s analysis? Here are a few thoughts.

First, he deserves great credit for spending as much time as he has with the poor. He immersed himself in their world and what he found was very interesting. Second, he is asking the right questions—and questions which deserve our close attention. But in my view, his analysis is both thoughtful and incomplete.

The three branches of the right offer different ways to view the poor. Libertarians note the role of markets and the hope that creative destruction will mean a closed factory will be replaced with something better that offers consumers higher quality goods at lower prices. Conservatives note that when a pillar of a community (such as a factory) closes, bonds are broken. Neo-conservatives offer the perspectives of good social science.

Arnade may not be a conservative, but his analysis falls in the conservative camp. Because the strength of a community cannot be quantified as a price signal or as something that can be measured, many market-oriented analysts tend to ignore communities in their research.

What Arnade does not address is the question of what should be done. Take a community known for its buggy whips that had to close the buggy-whip factory when cars became popular. The buggy-whip factory could be propped up, for a time, with subsidies (including tariffs) that mask falling demand for their product. Eventually, though, the factory closes regardless.

Let’s assume that the workers in the buggy-whip factory don’t want to move. What should be done to retrain them? What businesses would work in that city?

Dignity reminds that the ties of family and community are worth preserving and are important. But our love of family should not deter us from recognizing that communities—and employers—change over time.

Chris Arnade raises important questions about the poor and the role that lower-income people play in our country, and he raises important questions that need to be addressed. But he only offers a partial answer as to what are the best ways to fight poverty.


This article first appeared in Philanthropy Daily on December 30, 2019.

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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