When educated Americans hear the word “McDonald’s”, most probably think of nutrition options they would keep away from their kids. Their thoughts might also turn to global warming because of forest clearance for beef production.Almost none would associate the fast-food outlet with community service. Yet that is what it means to many poor Americans.Actual community centres are often underfunded and run by people who want to reform you. McDonald’s, on the other hand, guarantees free WiFi, a place to charge your phone, non-judgmental company and very cheap food.“I’d never thought of McDonald’s as anything other than something people around me joked about, often outright mocking those who went there,” writes Chris Arnade, whose book Dignity looks at how America’s poor live. It had not occurred to him that the Golden Arches may also be a shelter. “McDonald’s was a space where they [the poor] could be themselves on their own terms,” Arnade discovered.Plenty of people, notably academics and journalists, write about poverty in America. Most are tourists. Some are not even that. Data can tell them all they need to know without having to interact with real humans. Arnade’s book offers a moving (though unstated) rebuke to those who think they grasp what American poverty is like.His method of patient observation might also offer a cue to those who are billed as experts on the causes of rising populism in the west. No single observer could ever be sufficiently immersed in the politics, economics, history and sociology of that many countries. A measure of intuition — and empathy — is warranted.In addition to its unflinching photographs of dozens of his subjects, Dignity’s main selling point is that Arnade listens without judging. His book is the product of several years in which he ends up with a philosophy very different from where he started.Before Arnade began his journey, he was a successful bond trader at a big Wall Street firm. Something kept pulling him to Hunts Point, one of New York’s poorest neighbourhoods. He discovered that the best meeting place was McDonald’s. That was where most people went and were happy to talk to him in exchange for a few dollars, a coffee, a pack of cigarettes or just a sympathetic ear.He began to question “how cloistered and privileged” his life had been.“I was sitting in my expensive home, in my exclusive neighbourhood, forming opinions and casting judgments about what was best for others largely just from what I read,” he writes. Arnade’s second-hand perspective clashed with what he observed directly. His travels took him to places such as Selma, Alabama; Bakersfield, California, and Prestonsburg, Kentucky.He stayed in motels that charged by the hour, often filled with families that had lost their homes. Some of them slept in their cars. In addition to fast-food outlets, Arnade spent a lot of time in churches. The same people would often frequent both.Some would fall prey to meth or opioids — hence the term “McMeths” for Mcdonald’s. The drugs epidemic is partly why the US has just suffered its third consecutive year of falling life expectancy, which is unique in peacetime. Others turned to God. The rest of society was blaming them for their plight. Churches welcomed them as they were.Arnade’s journey also taught him about the importance of place. Again and again, he would ask people in desperate straits why they did not simply pack up and leave. “Because this is my home,” they would reply as if talking to a child. Whether he was in a black or white neighbourhood, or mixed, the answer was usually the same. None of Arnade’s spreadsheets could explain why. He had to leave his own world to understand why religion and place were the life rafts people clung to.