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Source: Chris Arnade, via Medium

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In full disclosure, we didn’t identify today’s article in our NLP-driven screen of political and financial markets news. Medium posts don’t make our database. But it felt like part of our Zeitgeist to me. I think it will to you, too.

We have mentioned Dignity and its author Chris Arnade in our livestream feature on a few occasions. Why? First, because it’s a lovely book and worthy of your time. Second, Chris is a former markets professional, which makes a lot of what he has to say relevant for a big part of our audience. He understands our language. But we also think his framework for thinking about class in America – and his willingness to uncondescendingly apply it to better understand the frustrations of a huge, demographically diverse swath of Americans – is useful. And powerful.

He shared a piece yesterday that he had written last year called “D in the McDonald’s.” It is an interview with a former computer worker with a passion for math who also happened to be living in a truck in the parking lot of a McDonald’s. I don’t want to reprint it in full, because I think you should read it there. But I want to share a piece that did jump out at me. As you’ll find, Arnade doesn’t offer many simple answers.

It’s a good thing, too, because there aren’t any.

As I drive away I think I must be missing something, some simple explanation for why D is homeless, some reason why a man who worked with computers for 30 years is living in a truck. I spend lots of time with homeless people and I usually can say within a few seconds a glib reason for them being on the streets. It is usually mental illness, or drugs, or a physical handicap, or aggression, or a lifetime of jails and prison. Or all of that. With D there is no obvious simple explanation.

D in the McDonald’s (Chris Arnade on Medium, June 2019)

I’m not even an armchair sociologist, but if you’ve lived in different parts of what Arnade calls back-row America, even as a lucky-as-hell front-row (if McDonald’s-loving) son of an engineer, you can’t help but see the shared trait among the poor: a belief that they have few or no options. Sure, the reasons are different, but those reasons coalesce into the same feeling in a small oil-bust town in southeast Texas that they do on inside-Broadway Washington Heights and outside-University City West Philadelphia.

A lot of policy and a lot of charity is directed to fixing the sources of that belief that are external and tangible. In other words, we focus a lot of our energy on fixing the ways in which some people in America really don’t have many options. We invest in education and job-training, we regulate prejudicial hiring, we create social safety nets to prevent some forms of bad luck from eliminating optionality in life for our fellow Americans. A hundred other angles to address the many ways in which life choices might be limited. We disagree as a country about the scale and scope of these policies and who ought to be executing them. Still, I think that if you asked most full-hearted Americans if they wanted a political and social system that permitted unbounded mobility, you’d get resounding agreement.

The other side to the belief in the lack of options – and the one that is very hard to come up with answers for – exists in the stories we tell. Our narratives about the poor. We have a lot of them. But here, Chris puts his finger on one of the most powerful: in America, everybody knows that everybody knows that poverty is inextricably related to immorality. Conservative politicians circle the wagons around and campaign on welfare abuse and unhealthy / fraudulent use of food stamps as if they were a widespread budgetary disaster. Hundreds of charismatic and pentecostal churches (and yes, both principally white and black churches among them) embrace a prosperity gospel attaching God’s favor or anger as the sole cause of financial circumstance. Liberal leaders gloat about educational attainment in the Deep South as a predictor of Bad Political Views. The people who “cling to their guns and religion” will remember that characterization for a generation.

This idea is deeply, broadly shared cultural Common Knowledge.

But here’s the thing: forget about whether you think any of the above cases have some basis in fact. Yes, sometimes people are poor in part because they did bad things. Dumb things. And sometimes they get rich for the same reasons. I’ll leave it to someone else to parse through root causes, because I’m not here to lionize or condescend to anyone. Even if I were, I don’t know how to weigh goods and bads.

What I do know is that the Narrative of immorality-based poverty has power far beyond whatever truth lies underneath it. It changes how WE behave. It changes our perceptions of the dignity of other Americans and of their agency. It colors our perceptions of their motivations and it permits us cover for ingratitude and unkindness. And yes, I think it also affects the willingness of many who would benefit from getting back on their life’s path – or just being shown the trailhead, for God’s sake – to ask for or accept that assistance. How much help would you or I accept from someone we suspected offered it as a good deed to an undeserving wretch like us?

I don’t know if one of us being in a position to tell D in McDonald’s something practical about graduate school, or to offer love and help in a moment where a belief in a lack of options was crystallizing in his mind, or to connect him with someone we knew who needed someone with his skills might have opened up a new path for him to change his life for the better, or at least to make him happier. I do know that there are a thousand thousand others where we can and do have that power. Full Hearts.

Clear Eyes, too. We published a short piece this week about many of the memes that influence our behavior. We argued that there would be a time to sing new songs – once we’ve stopped singing the songs our powerful institutions required of us.

I think this might be a good one to start with.

Comments

  1. You are right it is a very complex problem with many root causes depending on the situation. Govt and the pursuit of immediate gratification are the two culprits I see most often.

  2. I’ve lived with “poor” people at one point in my life and I’ve known two people who were homeless, one I’ve known deeply (who is now a millionaire by the way). I obviously do not have the depth of experience as Mr. Arnade. I think some of the “narrative” of poverty-as-a-consequence-of-immorality is because we refuse to accept randomness as a major factor in all life outcomes.

    There was no real reason why the person I know well was homeless, it just happened as a result of some decisions and because of some random events. The “poor” people I lived with were born into terrible circumstances that were utterly out of their control but not impacted by the “negative” views of society very much, in my opinion. I think everyone is right when they talk about the complexity of the issues, as highlighted in the Arnade essay.

    I think accepting randomness as opposed to the virtuous narratives we make of our lives if we’re successful is important. I think another difficult step as well is not ennobling those living in poverty because of their poverty. “Clear eyes” I suppose - there is a lot of truth to the idea that if “one thing” had turned out differently we could be living on the street.

    The loss of human potential due to randomness is enormous:

    “Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
    The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
    Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
    And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

    • Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray

    I love the call for compassion and fighting against life as a “morality play” so we can find a deeper morality. Apologies if I just restated your essay here but it struck a chord. Carry on.

  3. Growing up in a nondescript town in Central Jersey in the '70s, what my parents, the “community” (neighbors, local charities, businesses, organizations) and the schools taught was that we need to help the poor (through charity and government programs) and that many were poor owing to bad fortune / circumstances while some (explicitly said or implied, a minority) had made poor choices (the morality thing).

    At least in my world, described above, the bad fortune / circumstances explanation greatly trumped the morality one. And that view held when, as an adult, I moved to NYC (and, later, spent several years in Boston). I’ve never lived in a community nor known a group (and I know a lot of conservatives and libertarians*) that, as a dominate explanation, believed poverty holistically is the result of a moral failing (I doubt any doesn’t think that it is the cause of some poverty).

    Before Epsilon Theory taught me about narratives, I called them “stories” and one story I’ve always felt was pushed on us is that “there is a prevailing view in America that poverty is a moral failing.” I just never saw that as the prevailing view, but I’ve been told it is (and I respect Rusty’s examples in his note), so it felt more “story -” now “narrative -” than truth to me; as if the Nudging State wanted to tamp down any embers of the morality-as-a-cause flame by claiming it was a raging fire when it wasn’t.

    That’s a long way of saying that my experience is that the “morality is the cause of poverty” view is a narrative intentionally exaggerated as having a large following / being the dominate view in America by those trying to fight poverty. To wit, they inflate the importance of their enemy in order to advance their own agenda.

    *The libertarians who I’ve know (I lean heavily that way) want to eliminate government anti-poverty programs on a principle of limited government, not to “punish” the poor. Most believe (rightly or wrongly) that private charity should and would fill the void and many of these libertarians are very charitable in their personal lives.

  4. Speaking of randomness —nothing in a person’s life could be more random than the parents they are given , and in many cases parent. I would love to see the studies of children raised by two parents instead of one— and outcomes.

    The war on poverty has spent 15 TRILLION and poverty rates are the same , my guess is, homeless rates are much higher than in the Johnson administration.

    There are millions of individual stories , Drugs and bad choices are at the heart of a lot of them , and bad luck as well. Massive government failure is a huge part though , especially in the communities where poverty has become systemic.

  5. How is it that Mr. Arnade’s story webpage has no comments yet here there are already several!

    I enjoyed the article, thank you for highlighting it. I’d posit however that simply because Mr. Arnade did not discern mental illness in this individual does not mean there is none present. Not being judgmental. Just an observation.

  6. Complex sure. And yet, maybe so simple for one person, for one day. I certainly had almost every advantage towards success. So today what can I do to effect even the smallest change?
    I tend to have an easier time keeping a ‘full heart’ when I start the week driving through the disadvantaged area of my town, emptying my wallet to any random person, and leaving it empty all week.
    Yep, they might buy drugs with it and I wouldn’t. And I could just drop the cash at the homeless shelter that I drive by to my office. But I can go to the ATM and get more, or use a card for purchases, and he / she probably can’t. I have been absolutely shocked at the clear and overwhelming gratitude by every person. And that’s sad. Because I am not close to evening the score. Like here, I don’t think that’s even possible. I’m just trying to keep it from getting worse for one day between just two people, at least in my emotional perception.
    And please don’t give me any credit here. I only started doing this because of a very specific personal situation where I had a tiny glimpse into drastic injustice that many people face while facing my own that was so tiny in comparison, yet emotionally, and professionally paralyzed me for years, when it didn’t have to.
    I offer this to say that if this is all overwhelming to you, maybe try rebalancing the odds between you and one other person for just one day.

  7. Mark - I, too, grew up in a nondescript town in Central Jersey though maybe a little later than you and the overarching narrative was absolutely what you describe. After grad school I moved to Arkansas for over a decade and everything Rusty says is absolutely accurate about the narrative there. It is a truly foundational view of how the world works and is a fundamentally different mindset that drives big differences in behavior.

  8. Seth, great insight, thank you. It’s why I noted my geography as I understand there is probably a geographical divide. Quite interesting to hear it described by someone who has lived in both “worlds.”

  9. Great points, Rusty!! Like so many things, there is no single answer. As the child of an immigrant in lower half of middle class, I knew what it was like to go without. However, I chose my parents right (luck), with a father who demanded we get an education and “be somebody”. My dad taught me that I owned the outcome of my actions. Once I entered the professional world, I felt a bit less lucky re parents…as I saw the kids who had accomplished/professional dads not only get a good education (table stakes in life), but were groomed, mentored, and connected to people who could help them. It often felt like I was in a hundred dash with these kids/people’s being spotted the first 20 yards.

    The problem as I see it today, too many are spotted at the 50 yard line in that same foot race. It has always seemed unfair to me and has become worse…the college admissions scandal a poster child for this. I got lucky and had good parents. Who is going to help these people who didn’t/don’t have good parents (friends/a community for adults), luck, or opportunity to see the singular concept, the difference between being broke and being poor? Being broke is temporary; being poor is permanent…a state of mind. We as a society need to lift their states of mind…and the rest will follow.

  10. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Thanks, Lawrence. I have seen both of those at work, too.

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