Chris Arnade is a Wall Street bond trader turned photographer and journalist who now takes photos of people in Hunts Point, New York for his Faces of Addiction series. Hunts Point is an incredibly low-income city, known for poverty, drugs, crime, prostitution and corruption. For three years now, Arnade has humanized people who are too often forgotten. Throughout his research, his subjects have become his friends.
I first came across Arnade’s photos when I was in Manhattan a couple of years ago. I remember lounging in my hotel room, flipping through his Flickr album, overcome with emotion. Part of me was amazed that there was another side to a city I had once only associated with $5 coffees, Eastern European models and overpriced dinners. Then I remembered that every city has a Hunts Point.
I have a very similar background to Arnade: I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona — a resort town known for plastic surgery, golf, car auctions and five-star hotels. When I was 12 years old, I began writing a book about Native American art and culture in Arizona. This led me to spend a large portion of my teenage years on different Native American reservations.
I saw the good — the wonderfully kind people with a deep culture and love for life — as well as the debilitating poverty. The kind of poverty that painted Hunts Point to look “pretty.” On the reservations, there was no vegetation, no stores or entertainment, garbage strewn was everywhere and stray dogs roamed the dirt streets. If I didn’t know that I was only a few hours north of Scottsdale, I would have thought I was in a third world country.
I had trouble understanding how this reality came to be. All of the inhabitants had a plethora of resources and opportunities available to them: a strong job market, counseling services, multiple non-profit organizations backing them, medical and dental insurance, federal housing, tribal-provided land, readily available scholarships to prestigious universities, etc.
So, when I came across Arnade’s musings that “if only” the people in Hunts Point had more opportunities — more money from food stamps and welfare, and more counseling services — they would be better off, I began to wonder. Is it really that simple to break the cycle of poverty?
Arnade claims that his subjects were dealt bad hands in life, that their situations are too tough to overcome. That their lives would inevitably be full of poverty, crime and addiction. He cites that unregulated capitalism and predatory economic rationalism are the roots of the national problem.
While there are aspects of his message with which I agree, I must question if blaming capitalism and economic policies is the easy, convenient answer. No one wants to preach about responsible financial planning and personal responsibility reasons for such a schism in lifestyle and finances of the world. If you talk about responsibility, you are implying that people's choices and actions affect their lives' outcomes.
While this may be harsh, it is, to a degree, true. Believing that the sole cause for a person’s poverty is an unregulated market is woefully naive. Additionally, it is offensive to those who work to make the best out of their lives, despite their circumstances.
Throwing money at a problem solves very little — just check out the dire state of many Native American reservations. The way to break the cycle of poverty is through education reform — not economic regulations or Wall Street.
We must aim to change the way we examine education. It’s imperative that we bring basic finance skills and home economics back to classrooms. Providing someone with a meager number of food stamps is not a sustainable way to help if the person does not know how to budget for groceries or how to cook a simple meal.
By not providing children with a solid, rounded education, we are robbing them of success for their futures and creating another generation rife with poverty. Chris Arnade fails to mention this. He'd rather focus on attacking Wall Street and capitalism than offer solutions. Arnade may be a decent person doing great work for the community of Hunts Point, but it is sad to see how he allows his personal anger toward Wall Street to cloud the real issues, which are responsibility and education.
Photo credit: Chris Arnade