Who knew being poor was so controversial?
Doubtful? Just take a look at the online reaction to The Blade's recent three-day series about the plight of Toledo-area residents who have been knocked out of the middle class by the Great Recession. The stories of those profiled garnered a higher-than-usual number of comments -- and a level of vitriol typically reserved for hot-button political issues.
The response essentially reveals a city with a split personality. People are either sympathetic or brutally callous, if not downright mean-spirited. There's not much in between.
"Take some time to seek out local charities mentioned and DONATE WHAT YOU CAN!" one commentator wrote.
"This family is out of work, but it is their own fault," wrote another. "Animals are not responsible for their situation. People are."
The Blade emailed some of the people who posted 255 comments on the Web site, but none of them responded.
One could argue that the anonymous nature of such posts ought to render them unworthy of attention. After all, comments on news Web sites sometimes more nearly resemble the walls of public bathroom stalls than a forum for civilized debate.
Still, the comments reveal a widely held stereotype about poverty, namely that the poor themselves are to blame for their circumstances -- that they are lazy, unwilling to work, and merely looking for a handout.
"That is statistically an untrue statement," said Deborah Conklin, director of the Toledo Lucas County Homelessness Board. Although poor decision-making sometimes plays a role, it's unfair to ignore forces such as unemployment, illness, and other factors beyond a person's control, especially after three years of harsh economic conditions, Ms. Conklin said.
Although the Great Recession has brought increased levels of poverty to suburban and traditionally middle-class families, the stereotype about poverty remains strong, according to Mark Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis who has written extensively about poverty.
To understand the depth of the stigma surrounding poverty, Mr. Rank surveyed Wisconsin welfare recipients in the early 1990s. When asked to explain why they turned to government programs, recipients almost always said it was because of forces outside their control, such as job loss or illness. But when asked why others were seeking services, nine out of 10 recipients blamed poor decision making, such as drug use or laziness.
In other words, even those who are part of the stigmatized group tend to believe the stigma.
"That shows you how powerful that stigma is," Mr. Rank said.
Concerns about those stereotypes prevent many people from speaking publicly about their difficult circumstance and, in some cases, deters them from seeking aid, driving them deeper into poverty instead.
Renee Palacios, executive director of Family House Shelter in central Toledo, has seen that fear firsthand among people arriving at her facility.
"The first thing they say is, 'You're not going to tell anybody I'm here, are you?'" she said.
When people think of the homeless, "They automatically go to the dirty, unshaven man in rags," she said. "That's just not the face of homelessness anymore."
Indeed, Mr. Rank's research shows that the number of people who will experience at least one year of poverty in their lifetime has grown dramatically in recent decades. Today, "at least 60 percent of the population ages 25 to 75 will experience at least a year in poverty," he said. "Poverty has a very wide reach."
Such statistics have a major implication for those who have suggested on The Blade's Web site that those in poverty "are simply looking for handouts."
Contact Tony Cook at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-724-6065