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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.