DIGNITY: a book review


Author and photographer Chris Arnade left a high paying job on Wall Street and drove 150,000 miles across the United States to try to understand the causes of poverty in America. Dignity: Seeking Respect In Back Row America is filled with encounters with down and out people from all over the country. It describes their life in their own words and photographs.

He separates American culture into those who he likens to sitting in the front row of a classroom and those who are in the back row, between those who are accepted and those who are tolerated, those with credentials and those without credentials. Arnade centers his research around McDonald’s restaurants since he believes “If you want to understand the country, visit McDonald’s.” On his journey he visited McDonald’s from Maine to California and reports in dialogue and photos of the struggles encountered by people who stay in the back row while trying to maintain dignity.DSC05423 (3)

Arnade maintains that the front row finds meaning and honors only in what can be measured like credentials, education and economic development. These are chosen first by the front row while the back row places more emphasis on community, happiness, faith and a sense of place. Many of the people he met, for example, chose the value of staying in their home town with their families rather than leaving to pursue a job. The front row sees their choices as stupid, lazy and dumb.

The people Arnade encountered on his journey were in poverty due to a wide spectrum of issues including homelessness, prostitution, unemployment, drugs, race, religion and an inability to move to find jobs or education. All, he claims, were fighting to maintain dignity. His work was one of self-reflection, one of reconsidering what is valuable in his life. If you can’t travel 150,000 to study poverty, read this book.dsc05343-4.jpg

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6 Responses to DIGNITY: a book review

  1. RJ says:

    Sounds interesting. I like the McDonalds idea. Along the same vein as WalMart. Is it a good book? Well written? Holds your interest throughout? I know you recommend it, but it is a wholehearted recommendation, or otherwise.

  2. paaron1 says:

    RJ, the book has a lot of good photos and is interesting to look at but at the end I said “read this book”…not buy it. His story is a good read and makes you wonder how you are so fortunate

  3. linda says:

    I will try to find the book. I am currently reading White Trash by Nancy Isenberg. Historically, the USA was a dumping ground for vagrants, old soldiers, orphans, indigent, etc. And, I thought we were here because of religious freedom sought by “pilgrims”. After 1650 , less than half of the immigrants arrived with that notion. The Brits put on ships hundreds of people they thought idle and unworthy.

  4. paaron1 says:

    Linda, thanks for commenting. The author visited Somali refugees in northern Maine as part of his research

  5. Russ Gilmore says:

    Thank you for recommending this powerful book. I am one of the ‘guilty ones” in the front row who failed to understand the concept of dignity for those in the back row. This book was a life altering read for me and one that will greatly affect how I relate to those in our community and our country who are in the back row. Like Chris, I cannot comprehend an effective solution; however, I am now better prepared to listen.


  6. paaron1 says:

    Russ, thanks for your comment. I am glad I was able to bring it to your attention.

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