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.
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.