Chris Arnade on how the other half lives

This includes two updates

Half the world doesn’t know how the other half lives.   (old saying)

Chris Arnade spent 20 years as a Wall Street investment banker, then quit in 2011 to start a new career as a photojournalist, first interviewing and photographing drug addicts and prostitutes in the Bronx, then traveling across the country to talk to working people and poor people who’ve been left behind in the new economy.

Arnade said that what he concluded was that addiction is the result of isolation, isolation is the result of rejection and the chief source of rejection is the U.S. educational system.

The U.S. educational system, he said, teaches that the way to achieve success is to go to a good college, leave home and devote yourself to achievement in your professional life.

Those who do this successfully are the elite in American life.   The problem is that not everybody is able to succeed this way, and not everybody wants to do this.

Some people put family, community and religion first.  In this respect, he said, there is little difference between black people and white people, or between Anglos and Hispanics.

Arnade calls the first group the Front Row and the second group the Back Row. The Back Row are not only disrespected, Arnade said.  The economic system is rigged against them.

Every important decision on national policy, since at least the North American Free Trade Agreement  (NAFTA) in 1994, has put the interests of the Front Row ahead of the Back Row.

The one institution in society that welcomes the back row is the churches, he wrote.  He himself is an atheist, but he said that churches welcome you, no matter what your credentials or lack of them.  I’m not sure that is true of all churches, but his point is correct.

Another place the Back Row is welcome, he said, is McDonald’s restaurants.  McDonald’s original business model was a place where you can get in and get out quickly, but McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants have become places where you can get a nourishing meal at a low price, charge your cell phone and hang out with friends.  Most of them have an old man’s table that retirees have staked out for their own.

If you’re a Front Row person and want to break out of your bubble, stop having coffee at Starbuck’s (or the equivalent) and stop start spending time in McDonald’s (or the equivalent), Arnade advised,


The video above shows an interview of Arnade at the American Enterprise Institute back in November.  It consists of Arnade talking about his photographs, and then answering questions.  The video is long, but the essence of what Arnade said is in his talk between the 10th and 40th minute.

The interviewer, Katherine Stevens, an expert on early childhood education, said the question is how “we” can “get family and community right.”  She seems like a nice person, but I wonder who she thinks “we” is and what power “we” should have to shape families and communities.

I think the best way to help families and communities is to stop doing things that hurt them.


Historically intellectuals, politicians and business leaders have been concerned about struggling black people only in the aftermath of riots and civil disorders.  Now they are suddenly concerned about struggling white people mainly because a significant number voted for Donald Trump.

These are bad reasons for concern, and not only because they create an incentive to make trouble.

Chris Arnade did most of his interviewing before the 2016 election campaign.


Afterthoughts [1/13/2018]

Here are Chris Arnade’s definitions of Front Row and Back Row.

I don’t say, and I don’t think Chris Arnade believes, that Front Row people are all bad and Back Row people are all good.   I don’t criticize people who leave their small town or ethnic neighborhood in pursuit of a dream.  But it is the people who stay who provide the leavers with a place to come back to.

Afterthoughts 2 [1/13/2018]

Chris Arnade wrote about the plights of two groups of people.  One consists of  truckers, mechanics, snowplow drivers, telephone and electric linemen, trash collectors, emergency room nurses and everyone else who does the necessary work of society.  Call them the working class.

The other consists of addicts and others who have given up hope, are often the children of parents who have given up hope.  Even in a thriving economy, they probably wouldn’t be able to function.  Call them the underclass.

I know people who have tried to help addicted individuals recover.   This takes a lot of commitment, time and effort, and often fails.  I don’t have such commitment myself.   I do have a certain feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I,” but I don’t know if there is any social policy that would change them.

But there are millions of struggling people who are not demoralized, who have the will and the skill to do good work, and there is a lot of important work that is left undone.  I’m thinking of infrastructure, health care, education, public services and business customer service, in particular.

Why can’t they be put to work?  Why can’t they have decent wages?  Why are some of the best minds in business and industry thinking about ways to replace working people with automatic machinery and computer algorithms?  What is the benefit? Or rather: Who benefits?


Chris Arnade on Medium.

Chris Arnade in The Guardian.

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2 Responses to “Chris Arnade on how the other half lives”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Shouldn’t your paraphrase read “stop having coffee at Starbuck’s and start spending time in McDonald’s”?


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