tv QA Chris Arnade Dignity CSPAN December 23, 2019 6:01am-7:01am EST
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susan: i wanted to put the cover of your new book, "dignity," on the screen. explain its essence to me. chris: it is a book about my five years driving around the united states, spending time in what i would call back road america, the part of america that is everywhere. it is not a red state or blue state thing, it is the towns and communities that have been ignored or left behind or forgotten. places like selma, alabama, like the north side of milwaukee, places like the bronx in new york city. places that are kind of stigmatized and defined in various ways as being places where there is high crime or
poverty, but places that make up a large part of the united tates. susan: that is the back row, the front row is -- hris: the front row is me. e and my colleagues. i used to work on wall treet. i was there for 20 years before i did this. i have a phd in physics. those are what i call front row professions. people who have harvard degrees, yale degrees, who make up a large part of the political class. people who make up a large part of wall street and the media. people who are very different in many different ways but have a similar lived experience after high school, which is primarily about where they go to college, where they go to school. susan: and the poor, which a lot of these folks are, have always
been part of our society and many western societies. is there anything distinctive about people who are poor in america right now? hris: first of all i would say that part of the change over my lifetime certainly, i am in my 50's, is the income gap between the poor and wealthy. both statistically has grown in the last 30 years. what i have found and what my book tries to highlight is the differences are not just about statistics, the differences are about how people live, how people think, their whole worldview. what i learned in my book, and i hope i can communicate to the reader is that being poor, or being forgotten or left behind is not just about a statistic. it's about a way of life and feeling humiliated, feeling disenfranchised, feeling the whole way you view the world is
ignored and demeaned and looked down on. i call the book "dignity" because what i found during those five years all over the u.s. in these communities is i found a frustration and humiliation and a search for dignity, a desire to be dignified and have a dignity, despite what statistically is very bad circumstances. susan: the concept of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps has been part of america. from its very beginning. you think about abraham lincoln running for office from the log abin to the white house. is that concept one that is grounded in reality? chris: i certainly don't think so. it is a wonderful youth house. i think everyone i met on my -- eat those -- wonderful ethos.
i think everyone i met on my journey has aspirations to pull themselves up but the ability to do that is very much about where you are and who you know. i think in this world we have created, where i say we have this gap between the front row, the educated elite, and the back row, the people i spent time with, the gap is so large. not only in material terms but in how people think about the world that some people in the back row don't even know what it means to be in the front. they don't know how to pull themselves up. one of the things we in the ront row, we educated, we know the rules. we are supposed to study real hard, sit in the front row, listen to the teacher, perform well on tests, go to the right
school, build a resume that gets us into the right schools which gets us the right jobs, into the right neighborhoods, and so on. the people in the back row don't know that, some of them don't know that exists. they don't have a map and they don't know how to do it. even if they do know how to do it, there are so many obstacles n their way. i liken it to -- to succeed in the world we have created, to be successful, to go to harvard on a scholarship and go to graduate school and work as a wall street trader, you have to walk this tightrope of doing all of these things right from the very beginning. if you make one mistake, you fall off. and often, it is over. you cannot do it. susan: is the book inherently political? chris: not explicitly. i certainly intended it to be timeless in that sense. it was not -- the five years i
was doing the research took place during the election of 2016. it is hard not to have politics xplicitly in it. but explicitly, i think the 2016 election is only mentioned three times out of 300 pages. i think the political ramifications are clear. i think -- what the book -- i hope communicates to people is that if you are in a forgotten community and you feel humiliated and you want dignity, there are political ramifications for a lot of people feeling that way. if a large percent of the electorate is frustrated and feeling humiliated, the political consequences are clear. you're going to have people who,
in some cases, just remove themselves, they are so frustrated. they just opt out of the system. i call it justified cynicism. they look at the system and say nope. why should i play this game? and there is another group of people who are going to basically knock over the table. things are not working for them as is, so why not knock over the table and try some thing different? susan: i heard in an interview that you said the book has generally been ignored by people on the left of the political spectrum. if that is the case, why do you think it is so? it seems to be an indictment of capitalism, so why would it not appeal to that side of the pectrum? >> i don't know. it is for me a little surprising.
my parents are both democrats. i was raised as a democrat, we had democratic club meetings in our house as a kid. i am a lifetime democrat and i count myself as a leftist. i felt the book was -- to the degree it has an ideology, as you said, an indictment of the current capitalistic system. i think part of it is, one of the chapters is called faith. one of the lessons i learned over those five years was the importance of faith and the very dignified role religion plays in people's lives. i think that caught people on the left off guard. i think some on the left don't particular want to hear that. i started the project as an atheist and i count myself now as agnostic, i guess. but spending five years with
homeless people and in neighborhoods blighted by poverty and drugs and seeing that the only thing that works for a lot of people was religion. it was not just a pragmatic role. it played a real, central role in their life. i could not ignore that. susan: it is clear this was an evolution for you. in order to understand that evolution, tell me more about your roots. where were you born? you mentioned your parents were democrats, tell me how you were brought up. chris: i was born in a small, southern town in florida. a lot of people don't think florida is the south but it was very much the south. 500 people in town and my parents were a bit of the outsiders, they arrived in the late 1950's when most people in the town had been there three or four generations. my father was a professor.
again, one of the few professors in town. that's where we grew up. 99% white working-class community in the south. the minute i could, i got out of there. i was good at math, and as much as i liked the people in the town, and i did like them, it was not for me. and i was an altar boy and did all of the things in town, layed little league and high school football. but by the time i graduated high school, i was reading science books, was an atheist, and did not feel like i fit in and wanted something different. i left, went to college, got an undergraduate in math. >> where did you go to school? >> new college in sarasota, sort f.
susan: how did you get from there to the phd? chris: i took tests and was good at it. it came naturally to me. i was always into the big questions. the big question in my mind was cosmology. i went to johns hopkins, which had the space telescope. this was in 1986, 1987, i went and got a phd in theoretical physics. susan: from there to wall street. what was that? chris: susan: that doesn't seem like a logical progression. chris: i was one of the first
people to do it. it is now a pretty common route. they call them rocket scientists. at some point people on wall street realize it is all numbers and here is this group of people who are good at numbers. i was not particularly great at physics. to make a career in physics, you have to absolutely love it and i liked it but i did not absolutely love it. i am not particular good at it, so i left and went to wall treet. susan: were you good as a bond trader? chris: yes. susan: how long did you do it? chris: 20 years. susan: how do your lifestyle change while you were doing that? chris: quite a bit. me and my family would like to say we did not change much, but i think over time. i got paid more my first year than my father ever made. 10 times more than i got as a grad student. you know, we lived what i thought was a relatively modest
life but it wasn't. we had a big apartment in brooklyn and sent our kids to a private school and did all of the things you do when you live in new york city as a wealthy person. susan: what happened? chris: i always was -- i always took walks to relieve stress, long walks. like 20 miles. being something of a science geek, i made a goal to walk the entire length of the new york city subway system above round. i had done that and i realized at some point that i had not gone to the bronx. so i took -- i called them my terminus walks, i would walk -- i would take the subway to the end and walk along the route. in 2008 during the financial crisis, my life changed dramatically because of the financial crisis. my kids were older and my walks could be longer. i started making those walks not just about the goal of completing the subway system, walking wherever you could, but i started realizing what i
enjoyed about the walks were the people i met during the walks. the kind of things you had experienced that you necessarily would not want to experience. or did not plan to experience. so eventually i started bringing a camera along to document the people i met and the stories i heard during these walks, and that evolved into me taking pictures of people and writing their stories. susan: what kind of camera did you use? was it an obtrusive one? chris: initially it was a little point-and-shoot, but then i got a real camera. for the photo geeks, a nikon 5. susan: had you done photography before? chris: just as a hobby. susan: from there all the way to publishing a book essentially a -- of photographs, you found omething you are good at and could use to tell a story? chris: what i liked about
photography was that people like having their photos taken. the minute my camera was there, folks would ask me to take their photos. that allowed a conversation to evelop about them. you know, when anybody saw my camera and wanted their picture taken, inevitably they would spend an hour and a half telling me about their life. for the viewer, these are not people who usually have pictures taken. these are drug addicts, homeless people, the poorest of the poor often. in neighborhoods that to be blunt, a lot of white people will not go. largely hispanic, largely black neighborhoods. it was a conduit, in retrospect it was a conduit for me to learn
more, to learn in a different way, to learn from people rather than books and spreadsheets and articles. susan: you ended up spending quite a bit of time in one part of the bronx called hunts point. why did this part of the city attract you so much? chris: a variety of reasons but initially i went because i was told not to go there, which is my way of dealing sometimes. i remember i was on wall street and people were like, where are you walking this time, and i said i'm going to the end of the two train and walking home. they go, you're going to have to go -- that is the bronx. whatever you do, do not go to hunts point. ok, i am going to hunts point. the reason they told me that is it is considered to be the most -- the poorest neighborhood in new york, it is stigmatized as being poor, crime-ridden. hbo had done a salacious show
called "hookers at the oint." it has a big stigma attached to it because of drugs and the sex trade. i did not know much of that but i knew i was not supposed to go there. i remember when i first walked there, i just want to say it is a wonderful neighborhood before saying anything else and that's what i try to communicate in my book. i saw that the minute i walked in there. it is a tongue of land cutting -- jutting out, if you ever fly into laguardia, you fly over it coming from the north. it is a tongue of land that juts out into the east river most -- lmost directly across from laguardia airport. it is kind of a gated community in all of the wrong ways. on three sides it is cut off by everything else by water and on the fourth side, it is cut off by the massive interstate, the expressway. it is where new york puts things it does not want.
garbage dumps, junkyards, auto body shops. it is also home to 40,000 people. susan: who are they? who lives there? chris: 99% hispanic and black, working-class. 50% below poverty level. they live in one area. the minute i walked into the neighborhood, i felt, in an odd way, what i had grown up with, which is a small town where people watch out for each other. even though -- and it also, as a photographer, because it faces the south, it has good light. it doesn't have tall buildings
and has good light and it was very good photographically. susan: i want to put another picture on screen. this is a person whose name is keisha. who is she? hris: she was the first -- there is a sex trade, and she is a homeless addict. she is much more than that, but that is what she would be called. she has been living on and off the streets for 40 years. she is one of the first people i met in hunts point. she is always walking the streets and i had intentionally out of respect for what she is doing and knowing the big difference between us, i had given her space. eventually she called me over. she kept on yelling, come take a picture of me. so i walked over and took a picture. it was a sunday morning i believe, or a saturday. it was empty because -- all the semi's were gone. she was in the industrial part
f hunts point. immediately her intelligence came right through and we spoke for about an hour, half an hour or so. she told me her life, which is just, you know -- it is like a cliche of everything wrong that can happen to somebody. eventually i asked her what i ask everybody i photograph, which is, what is -- how do want me to describe you? give me one sentence. she shot back, "what i am: a prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of god." susan: you have been done with this project for years and it seems like you are still emotional. chris: yes, sorry. susan: why is that? why is it you bring so much emotion? chris: because i think -- sorry, i tear up when i talk about eisha.
as an author, there is a frustration about not being able to communicate how rich of a person -- you ask who she is. i go to the cliche, she is a homeless addict, but there is so much more than that. so part of it is the frustration of an author not being able to say she is an immensely rich, smart, wonderful person who can also be called a homeless ddict. and, you know, i also get emotional because i know how rough her life has been and still is, and how unfair that s. susan: you said she became your guide to hunts point. how did the relationship work and what were the kinds of people she introduced you
to? chris: it's basically, i call it a street family. roughly 30 -- a collection of 25 to 30 people who call each other sister, mother, father, mother. they act like a family. they are homeless. they shoot up heroin, often 10 ags per day. they live under bridges, in abandoned buildings, and broken down cars, on roofs, in pits. under expressways, wherever. and some of them do sex work. some of them don't. some of them scrap iron, some of them steal, some of them rob. they have to make $150 per day o shoot up heroin.
and she and i -- she, amongst others, basically let me into their lives. kind of guided me through this community. for roughly two and a half to three years, i was kind of an outsider and fly on the all. an honorary member of this family. they were kind enough to let me in with my camera. susan: at what point did you quit your job on wall street? chris: after about nine months of hanging out in hunts point and doing that, it was absurd. i could not. i had this absurd, weird life being a wall street trader during the day and on the weekends, being under bridges with heroin addicts. susan: when i was reading your book, there are two parts to it, which we will talk about. one at hunts point, and one around the country, but i kept thinking about your own family.
clearly you were changing so much and you were leaving at odd hours. how did your family members react to this journey you were n? chris: i have a supportive family, which i am very fortunate of. i think -- the way i explain it is this was more me than being a wall street banker was, and they knew that and appreciated that. if you knew me growing up or new me in college, i was not a wall street banker. this was more who i was. it is kind of like, you are back to being you again. but also, once i quit, i was physically around my family more. i may be gone two months at a time on the road, but i'm also back for two months and always there. it has been tough on my family. that is part of the problem with doing something like this. it changed me.
it is unfair to my family. it is not fair, they did not ign up for this. i think the old book is "mosquito coast" about a guy who goes on a journey and drags his family through hell, and at some point i said i am not going to mosquito coast. have to put boundaries. that is why i stopped going to the bronx. susan: you got very involved in people's lives. some of the critics suggest that's where the line with journalism stops. if you involve yourself. what do you think about that? chris: i could spend hours talking about it. susan: the rulebook? chris: i do my best not to get too angry. the rulebook is well-intentioned. but it is conveniently a way to keep people from doing projects like this. it is conveniently a way to keep a boundary and not get involved
in people's lives. i got criticized for helping people out financially, which i can't imagine not doing. how can i not buy people food? how can i see somebody who was a friend of mine at that point and withdraw and not help them find money? it is just basic human decency. these people accepted me into their lives and for me to not help in a way that i could -- you know, i had money. it was not just money, it was driving them to detox, visiting them in prison, taking them to hospitals, taking them home to visit their family. how could i not do that? the idea that you are not supposed to get involved with the subject is well intended and i understand why it is there, but it is also a way to keep people from writing about these things.
i find it unethical for a journalist to do this, or an artist to do this, and not help out. to come in, get stories, and leave. susan: what kind of boundaries did you give them about how you would use their stories? do we know their real names, did they give you permission to use their photographs? chris: yes. in hunts point specifically was a three-year project and there are a lot of pictures i haven't published, a lot of stories i haven't told. pictures i have taken off the book when requested. one of the things i do regret is i don't think anybody can fully understand what the internet is. initially -- susan: how exposed you are? chris: yes. i think everybody -- i am omfortable with the lever of -- level of understanding everybody had at the time. i can't say now i am comfortable necessarily. i did not know it would become this and i could not have
predicted it would become this. i don't think anybody else could have. there are cases where people might feel uncomfortable that it it is out there, but for three years they told me they were comfortable and i have to go with that. susan: what was the progression from you walking and taking photographs to you doing blogs with photographs to columns in "the guardian" to this? how did that all happen? chris: it was basically that progression. it was just -- susan: did "the guardian" see you on the internet and come find you? chris: it was an editor, heidi moore, who knew me for my business writing. she summing -- she saw on the --
saw me on twitter and asked me to write some business articles for her, which i did, on wall street. not very favorable to wall street articles. from there, she introduced me to the op-ed people and i started writing more political pieces. susan: who -- how did the book idea come together? chris: that was entirely accidental. meaning -- i did hunts point for three years and eventually i had to leave for emotional reasons, i was into deep. -- in two deep. -- too deep. it wasn't fair to my family. it was getting me to be -- i was drinking too much and it was not a good place. to see such pain, to be surrounded by such pain. i exercise the option few people
have and i left. i decided to be a geek about it to be mathematical about it and i put on my science hat. i had learned all of these things at hunts point and i want to see if they were translational he -- translationally invariant. what i was seeing at hunts point, the vast injustices, but beneath it all still human dignity that shown through, was this something that was unique to hunts point, or was this elsewhere? after clearing my head, i got sober and i went to other places. susan: before we leave hunts point, tell me about one other person who impacted you. chris: that would be millie. again, a homeless addict. she is dead now. it was her death -- her lifestyle, part of the street
family. she went missing. just kind of, you know. it is kind of common. people just disappear. and then rumor fills the void. some said she got stabbed, some said they found her body in the east river, and fanciful tales were told. i figured that what happened like in most cases, she otherwise imprisoned or had gone to detox or managed to find family members and escape the streets for a while. eventually i found her body. she had died at lincoln memorial hospital. and she had died with no papers. no identification. after six months, her body was buried on something called hard island, an island in the east
river where about one million unclaimed bodies are buried. they have been burying people there in new york city since 1865. a paupers' field i think is what they call it. put in a wood box in a massive trench and buried. eventually i went through the legal loopholes of getting her body exhumed and properly buried. but -- you know, i kind of both smile which is not a nice thing to do, because i think back to old me. when i found out she was buried on an island -- you cannot visit the island, by the way, there are one million people there and it is run by the department of corrections. oddly. now because of the work of one woman, this wonderful woman, melinda hunt i believe is her name, you can visit once a month. you can take a ferry and step on the island and that is about it.
you cannot go to any grave. i kind of think back to old me, when i found out she was buried in a trench on an island you can't visit, i would have said, so what? she is dead. what does it matter if you can't visit? being a very rational, scientific guy. as someone said to me on the streets, when they eventually got her a proper gravestone, helped people get her a proper gravestone, they said her memory does not die. until we stop telling stories about her. having the gravestone allows that. susan: you left hunts point and set out on a three year journey? chris: roughly two and a half. susan: how many miles?
chris: somewhere between 200000 and 300,000. susan: how did you choose the communities you visited? chris: kind of the way i chose hunts point. i kind of was mean about people i like because i would say, where should i go? i would go where they would not tell me. they would take, oh, you need to go to blank. i wanted to go to places people never go to, like hunts point. i ended up going to places -- i used poverty maps, maps of addiction, maps of crime rates, to find places -- i had this big map in my mind of places i wasn't going to go to that people told me to go to them, and places that stood out because they had high poverty or high crime. susan: i'm going to put another photograph on screen, and that is of mcdonald's. it became the locus of your exploration. why mcdonald's? what does it do in these communities?
chris: in hunts point in the bronx, i found myself in mcdonald's all the time, because everybody else was there. keisha, millie, shelley, ramon, sarah, they were all there at mcdonald's. it was the only place that offer them a respite from the streets, it allowed them to use the bathroom, allowed them to charge their phone, use the internet. if they had a phone. it was basically a community center where people did not judge them. susan: this is true throughout the country? what institutions is it replacing in our society? chris: the town square in some ways, the community center. i think people -- when i write about mcdonald's and how it has become this ad hoc community center, where people who live on
the streets can gain a moment of dignity by rejoining society and not being stared at and being allowed to go there. you go into any mcdonald's and you find them. people like keisha and millie, people living on the cusp. you see them in a booth, maybe with their old cell phone with cracks on it, maybe with a bible. they are escaping the streets, hanging out for a few hours. i would say that in many ways, libraries form that will come into. susan: how does mcdonald's corporation feel about this? or the local managers? are they encouraged? chris: i don't know. i do know that in every -- susan: do you ever see managers chasing people out? chris: no. maybe one out of a million. you know, i mean -- i think someone, i can't say for a guarantee because i haven't
asked. i suspect -- i think mcdonald's knows what it is doing. it knows its clientele. often it is people who are friends with the workers. mcdonald's is very reflective of the neighborhood. the people who work at mcdonald's are from the community. the bond is between often the employees and the people using it as a shelter. they may know them from high school, they may know their brother from high school, they may know their sister from high school. in many cases, again, the employees are very much part of the community as well. susan: you referenced this earlier, but small churches, not the big institutional churches, but small churches were very much a part of what you found in these communities. where is this one? chris: that is prestonburg,
kentucky, i believe. susan: what do they represent? in these folks lives. chris: absolutely everything. this particular young lady was part of a family that -- i don't want to use their names -- who had, they did not have much. they had someone drive them the 35 miles from the place they were living down to this church for sunday night service. six hours sunday night service and i was there for the entire thing. it was everything, it was their community. it was their day, it was their week, it was everything. >> how did the presence in those churches in the time you spent impact your spirituality? chris: again, i jokingly say with mcdonald's and the churches i went from being a vegetarian atheist to a meat-eating churchgoer. susan: do you still go to church now? chris: not as much as i should. susan: time to time. and before this, not at all?
chris: not at all. susan: i want to move to another photograph that i went back to a number of times. this was in portsmouth, ohio. this is a father pushing his kids in a shopping cart. how did you happen upon them and what is the story you wanted to tell with the photograph? chris: they were -- before getting into this, i want to say the father was doing everything he could. he was a good father. i think people would think probably not, but he was doing what he could. he said these kids came into my life and i was going to do everything i could to raise them. susan: did he have a job?
chris: no. not seen in the picture is the mother, standing along that road panhandling. that is right outside of the mcdonald's outside of portsmouth, ohio. the church was preston berg, kentucky. this is portsmouth, ohio. they were just there in the community. the father, while the mother was working panhandling, the father would push the kids around, maybe sit under a tree and play with them. susan: where did they live? chris: they lived, in his telling, in a garage behind the home of someone he knew. as he said, it's not that bad. he said, sometimes we can run a cord out there to run a heater but it is not that bad right now because it is not that cold. susan: did you ultimately -- i think i read in one of the stories about this, that you ultimately struggled with it but
called social services on these folks. chris: i did. believe me -- i was in town three different times or four different times, in the aggregate maybe three weeks, and this trip lasted maybe four days. i ran into them on the first day and the fourth day before i left, i called social services. susan: what happened? chris: they cannot tell me. from what i can read between the lines, they came and took the kids away. which was the right thing. it was hard because they trusted me. susan: and you feel that you violated that trust? chris: it is hard to make a decision for someone when you don't know the full story, but, you know, it was the right decision. i asked three or four other people's advice and it was the right decision. but i guess what to me was the bigger take away when i try to explain in the book, this father
pushing two kids around, and one -- and those blankets are filthy by the way and the cart is filthy, it doesn't come across in that picture. but it reeked. which is partially why i called. but nobody cared. it was just normal. like -- it was shocking to me and i have seen a lot. this is near the end of my five years and i had seen a lot. i had been in crack houses, i had seen people have septic wounds. i had seen people do desperate things for drugs and this shocked me. what shocked me even more was that cars just drove by. like this was normal. there was a minister who came and gave them a bible and some slabs of water but otherwise people kept driving by.
the fact that it became normal was what was shocking to me. susan: in selma, alabama, you met tony. we don't have a photograph. chris: that is correct. susan: he had been shot six times? is that right? chris: i checked my notes, i messed up, it was nine or six. i saw every bullet wound. susan: the interesting thing is he accepted this as his life, this is what -- the options available to him. what did he do? how did he make his money to live? chris: drugs. susan: he sells them? chris: yes. susan: where did they come from? chris: i suspect from -- sometimes you learn not to ask questions. i suspect from up north. i did not want to know. susan: the connection with
mcdonald's that was compelling is that he says i am unhireable. if he went to work at mcdonald's, what would happen? chris: the phrase he used -- he showed me his gun, he was proud of his gun. everyone would show me their guns. they would always flash me their piece. he said, if i put my gun down and put on an apron at mcdonald's, someone is going to put a cap in me, someone will shoot me. this is the life i live. i have to shoot first or i will be shot. susan: how old was he approximately? chris: 32. susan: he'd been doing this a long time. chris: yeah. one of the things, you talk about permission. i don't have a picture of him, but he wanted me to take a picture of him. that's a case right chose not to
take a picture. i said, i don't think you want me to take a picture of you. you are running from six felonies and you just admitted to me that you have been involved in nine shootings or six shootings, don't let me take a picture of you. >> another story from selma was the bric reclamation. what is that? chris: the person who was friends with the drug dealer was a former drug dealer himself who said you have to see this. i'm like, what? there were these four or five old massive cotton warehouses that were built in the 1850's or so that were being dismantled and were piles of rubble. people were being paid to sift through the rubble, scrape the bricks off, stack them into stacks of 500. they would get $20 or $10 for doing this. people's hands were bleeding and this was all the work they had. this is the only work paying people hard cash. susan: in selma. chris: yeah. and the people working were not angry. they were not -- they were like, yeah, this is work. i've got three kids to feed.
i've got to do what i've got to do. susan: the last stop i have time for, i'm sorry because there are so many stories, is lewiston, maine. a very different group of people you got involved with photographing there. who were they? chris: somali refugees. somali-americans. they had -- you know, lewiston i think is -- lewiston was a primarily quebecois, french-canadian american town that had mills and the mills left, and 99.9% white and then catholic relief agencies moved in an african family and within
10 years, they are at roughly 15,000 somali-americans living in downtown and turning it into their home. susan: successfully? chris: yeah. susan: starting businesses? chris: starting business -- they reclaimed downtown, which was dying. susan: what is the moral of the story? chris: there are a lot of morals there, but i think -- i understand, you know, there's a lot of -- there's a lot of -- immigrants in the united states face a lot of problems. but i think the lesson of lewiston is how well it works. you have this somali-american community that moved in in 1999 and dramatically changed the town and the town by and large is working ok. there are problems but it is working out. susan: in the brief 10 minutes
we have left, i wanted to put a wrapper on this conversation about what you learned. let me start with statistics. first of all we have talked about poverty. the federal poverty level is $12,000 and change for single and $15,000 for families. just this month, congress released a report that says the mortality from death of despair far surpasses that of anything in the 20th century. the recent increase has primarily been driven by an epidemic of drug overdoses, but even excluding those deaths, the combined mortality rate from suicides and alcohol-related deaths is higher than at any point in more than 100 years. statistically, there are 70,000 drug overdose deaths and 2018 and 88,000 deaths in the country from alcohol. you have documented a lot of this. what is going on in the country, what is the cause? chris: i am a bit of an outlier.
i don't think it is about supply. it is about -- addiction is not about supply, it is about demand. to be politically incorrect, drugs are popular because drugs work. what they'd -- the way they work is they numb the pain. there is a lot of pain. susan: how did we get to this point? chris: people feel humiliated. people feel a lack of -- you know, the phrase i use is people want to be a valued member of something larger than themselves and currently right now, a lot of people don't feel a valued member of something larger than themselves. what used to be -- one of the forms of that, to be a valued member of something larger than yourself, was faith. in many cases, we have been, -- we as society have demeaned the value of faith so that if somebody does feel religious, they feel a built humiliated, a bit scorned for it.
community, local community, was another. to be a valued member of some thing larger than yourself, a member of your community, to be part of a bowling league, the elks club, part of the county fair committee. we have become so mobile and so emphasis -- so much emphasis put on we in the front row. move, move, move. we tell everybody they need to move. if you stay put, you are a loser. somehow you are lacking. so, all those things, noncredentialed forms, the things that provided people -- you did not have to build a resume to get them. you had your family, your place, your faith. those gave you -- those grounded you and gave you a role and made you feel valued.
we have devalued those to the point where a lot of people, unless they are economically successful -- unless you are educated, which gives you a pathway to be economically successful, that is the only real thing we value these days, how much stuff you have and how much education you have. that has left a lot of people feeling like they are not valued. and, you know, crack houses, drug traps, and prisons are filled with people who don't feel valued. they felt like they were kind of humiliated, left behind, scorned, ignored. you know, that's -- if you feel rejected, and we have made so many people in this country feel rejected, one of the ways to deal with that is turning to drugs. susan: what about the absence of jobs? chris: that has hurt. again, one of the things, one of
-- part of the reason these communities are falling apart is, in every community i went to, people could literally point to a field that was either surrounded by barbed wire or was just empty, or it had a dilapidated building. they would say, that's where the jobs used to be. and you guys took those jobs away. those jobs -- i remember in battle creek, michigan, the couple who told me that they literally walked onto the factory floor out of high school where they worked for 40 years, and that enabled them to build a life, the stability to build a life, build a home, -- everybody
wants to have a family and build a life. it enabled them to have stability, buy a home, raise a family, have grandkids. and the stability is not there anymore. susan: the cover of your work has a blurb from the best selling author of "hillbilly elegy." the quote is, a profound book that will break your heart and leave you with hope. i am struggling to see the hope. chris: [laughter] the hope is that people endure. you know, one of the things i wish i had done more of in my book, you go into a crack house, you go underneath the bridge with addicts, there are jokes being told, there is humor,
there are moments of levity. people celebrating birthdays. i remember, i think it was sarah's birthday. homeless, literally under a bridge where we had to crawl along the pipe for about 30 yards. it is odd because it literally -- we are sitting there, it is like 12:00 at night, filth. the train zooming by every once in a while. and someone stole the cake for her. someone crawled through with this cake. they had gone into the shoprite, whatever, and lifted it. they stole a whole birthday cake. it was a birthday party. susan: are you going to stay on this beat or have you exhausted it for yourself?
chris: i am not sure. it is hard. i do not to -- i am not going to say woe is me because i have been very lucky, but it takes a toll. partly because it is so frustrating. it gets to be so frustrating to see something and not be able to rejoin polite society. and just not feel -- people don't get it. that is frustrating. susan: for the last bit of time, what is your hope that the book will do? what would be the best outcome? chris: that readers, before you judge somebody, take a moment to realize they are probably going through a lot. before you judge someone's decisions on an individual or group level, re-think whether it is a personal flaw that got them there or the situation they found themselves in. nine times out of 10, a person
is doing their best against overwhelming odds. susan: that is it for our time. thank you very much about telling us about "dignity" and your work documenting the back row, as you call it, of society. chris: thank you for having me. ♪ >> all "q&a" programs are available on our website or as a podcast at c-span.org. ♪ >> next week on "q&a" margaret o'mara discussing her book, "the code," about the rise of silicon valley and the role the federal government has played. ♪
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educe the national debt. as always, we'll take your calls and you can join the conversation on facebook and twitter as well. washington journal" is next. host: good morning. it is 7:00 eastern time here in washington. the start of a holiday week. congress returning in two weeks. president trump spending christmas with his family in florida. it is monday, december 23. we begin our first hour with foreign policy. the leaders of china, south korea and japan meeting today in beijing it. comes as the pentagon and u.s. officials are on, quote, high alert, after new threats over the weekend by north korea. in the past president trump has said that he and president kim jong un fell in love. but since that comment back in february, talks have broken down
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