Social Isolation and the Food Police

Last week on the Econ Talk podcast, Russ Roberts had Chris Arnade on as a guest.  Arnade is a former Wall Street trader who became disillusioned with his work and began (first as a way to just relieve stress) going on long walks to poorer neighborhoods in New York where he would meet people and take pictures.  He's since expanded the enterprise and has visited disadvantaged areas all across the U.S.  

There was a bit near the end of the discussion that hit home for me and helps explain a bit of the motivation that led me to write the Food Police several years ago.  

From the transcript, here is Chris:

They do see themselves as victims of policy decisions. They may not be actually informed about those policy decisions as people would like them to be. You know, I think what sticks out to me is the anger. The anger is kind of 3-pronged. One of it’s very much social. It’s a sense of feeling kind of diminished in terms of people caring about them, being made fun of: everything they do is laughed at. If they like NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.), that’s made fun of. If they vape, then that’s considered wrong. They eat at McDonald’s, that’s cheap. So that’s kind of just—if they go to church, they are considered silly. So there’s a sense of just feeling like very much they are being mocked in terms of their lifestyle.

After a bit more discussion, Russ Roberts the asks:

I want to talk about the first one, because it interests me. I am constantly trying to remind economists that money isn’t everything. And that, although work is nice when it brings money, one of the things it also brings is meaning. And I think the problem of the lack of employment in the United States as we’ve recovered from this recession, especially among less educated Americans, is a huge problem, not because they are poor and unemployed—which is unpleasant, no doubt about it—but because their life is not as meaningful and worthwhile. So, I totally understand that. What I wonder about is this idea of respect. Certainly respect is hugely important to our sense of wellbeing. But when you say things like, ‘People don’t respect NASCAR,’ or church, they being—McDonald’s. And among my friends, that’s true. Among the people I hang out with generally, higher educated people, those are all the attitudes they hold. But are the people who are enjoying those things—McDonald’s, etc.—why do they—how do they perceive that they are not respected? I don’t hang out much with people on the Coast, say, who are telling them that—is this something they are perceiving on television? Is it something they are reading about?

And Chris responds:

I don’t want to get overly simplified but I guess I really do think there’s two Americas. And I think the America that’s doing well dominates the media, dominates the culture in terms of—you know, Sociologists always talk about there’s an in-culture and there’s an out-culture. And we signal [?] ways of being in the in-culture, in terms of the television shows, in terms of what’s on, movies, and what’s kind of made fun of. And I think there’s a fair amount of people who make fun of the culture of poverty, in terms of how people get by. If people go to church. If people, you know, go to NASCAR. Or those sort of things. I think it does filter across through the media. And I think some of it also is, comes from a place of being frustrated already and then taking any perceived slights, you know, magnifying them. So, you know, we may not be as—they may be more overly sensitive than they should be, but that comes from a place of also being just frustrated, economically—feeling very much like they are left behind.

There are not doubt many good people in the so-called "food movement" who care about the downtrodden and are motivated by the belief that the food system they envision will help poorer people.  But, I think this exchange also reveals that we need to also respect and look at things through the eyes of the people we're trying to help.