How America Hates the Poor
American society is a land of plenty. Foreign visitors I show around are astounded by many things; few, though, more than the supermarket. The typical supermarket has thousands of products. Almost nothing exemplifies the idea of choice, and the supply of goods and products that choice requires, than strolling up and down the supermarket aisles. (One visitor asked, incredulously, "Do you Americans really need more than two dozen kinds of toothpaste?") Visitors' eyes bug out--thousands of choices, and the products among which to choose. This is America.
It is, perhaps, the presence of choice--or the perceived presence of choice-- sometimes called "opportunity," which becomes central to American views of the poor. American society is charitable worldwide, provides vast amounts of aid to developing countries, and tries with a missionary's zeal to get other countries to accept its point of view and values. Typical, perhaps, of reformers and exemplars, is that our own support of our own needy, within our "domestic system," to use Montgomery ( 1976) phrase, is not as enthusiastically and positively endorsed as our actions in the world community would suggest. Somehow need "out there" is different from need "in here." That is because the poor out there do not threaten us as do the poor in here.
If my visitors are astonished at the supermarket, they are struck dumb by the pet-food aisle. As one guest said, "How can you have a whole aisle of dog and cat food, and have such hostile attitudes toward the poor. You treat animals better than people."1 America's thinking about the poor is doubly re