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Travel | History | Literature

Mary O'Hara, The Shame Game book cover image

When I was ten I entered the regional disco dancing championships. 

    I’d never been to that side of town with its big houses and manicured gardens. It was like another world. 

    The convention centre was vast. Multicoloured lights suspended from the ceiling swept around the huge room where the competition was to be held. The wooden floor shone in a way I didn’t think wood could. Groups of girls began piling in, giggling and sparkling in the most incredible outfits I had ever laid eyes on. A posse of mothers followed the girls, all carrying little pink or powder blue coloured cases. They checked for creases, applied blusher, fixed bows and clips in their daughters’ hair. 

    I approached the long table at the front of the room, my hair still wet from the rain, where I handed over my 50p entrance fee and a middle- aged man gave me a white, square piece of paper with the number 11 on it. He asked if I was ok in a way that made me think the man thought I was in the wrong place. It would be fine, he assured me, before patting my shoulder and turning to talk to a woman nearby who then glanced over and shook her head slowly. 

    A bouncy older woman in a sequinned jumpsuit at the front of the room made announcements over a microphone. Girls, clucking loudly and preening, raced to the floor and took up spaces. One by one they edged me towards the back. Mothers stared at me from the side lines. Not in a bad way, but with a look I would soon come to understand was a combination of pity and disdain. My presence seemed to make them uncomfortable. I was out of place. 

    My eyes filled with water but I willed the tears back. I pinned the number card to my chest and pushed out my chin as I waited for the opening beats of the music. One, two, three, four. 

What does it mean to be poor? For too long, poverty has been explained away as the product of personal ineptitude and bad life decisions. Such accusations hurt financially vulnerable people, robbing them of rights and opportunity. Drawing on two years of research, Mary O’Hara asks how a misrepresentation that perpetuates inequality and injustice can be overturned and turns for answers to the experts in the subject—those who suffer it

The incident at the dance competition is the first memory I can recall of when I felt the sting of other people’s pity and when I think I realised, on a visceral level, that being from a poor background came with a stigma attached to it. Being poor or ‘on welfare’ was a source of shame. 

     Over the years there would be many other incidents that sharpened my understanding of the intersection of poverty, pity and shame. Like realising our first home, the one I lived in until we were re-housed when I was seven into new, public housing, was nothing short of a slum. Our first house had just two tiny bedrooms for eight people, and was perpetually damp. Rats were so commonplace they may as well have been members of the family. (A shovel was kept handy in the living room for when one appeared.) There was no bathroom, indoor toilet or central heating and the kitchen was a makeshift scullery with a plastic corrugated roof. Having a fridge or washing machine was unimaginable. My mum kept it immaculately clean and looking as nice as possible, but there’s only so much make-up you can put on a pig. 

     As I got a bit older and my dad became unemployed there was the realisation that claiming the ‘dole’ (unemployment benefits), as my father had to do for long periods of time, was a source of humiliation, even within a community where many people were in the same situation. And there was the knowledge that relying on state assistance to get by was not something that everyone had to face and was seen by some people as a sign of parental failure. There was the awareness too that while the food in our cupboards mostly met our daily needs (we had to borrow from neighbours when things got really tight) and that even though we had occasional treats (often paid for by going into debt with loan sharks), this was not how everyone lived. 

Mary O'Hara is an award-winning social affairs writer and author of Austerity Bites: A Journey to the Sharp End of Cuts in the UK, voted one of the Guardian best books of 2014 by Owen Jones. She was educated at St Louise’s Comprehensive in Belfast and Magdalene College, Cambridge, where she read social and political science. In 2010 she was an Alistair Cooke Fulbright Scholar at the University of California Berkeley, researching into press coverage of mental illness and suicide

West Belfast, which was also one of the main flashpoints during Northern Ireland’s sectarian conflict in the 1970s and 1980s, was among the most deprived areas in the whole of Western Europe—but even if I had known this, I doubt it would have made my younger self feel any better about how much we had to struggle or how much shame there was at not being able to afford what others could. 

     I’d seen enough TV to know that there were people who were well off or rich. I knew my teachers were better off. I’d just never really been anywhere near a wealthier part of town and interacted with people who lived there. I’d never met anybody from that background in any intimate way. Like most poorer families—and this is true today in Britain and America—we lived our lives in the poorer parts of town. We didn’t have middle-class friends. But when I first began to understand that we were looked down upon or pitied by many more financially fortunate people, the undercurrent of shame stayed with me for a long time.

     Anyone who has grown up poor will have similar stories to tell: those small or large experiences or encounters that force you to register that your family is not just lacking in material things (as hard as that may be) but that as a kid you are set apart from other children. Maybe it’s your first day at a new school when you look around and realise that the kids whose parents have jobs, or better-paid ones than yours do, have pocket money or better clothes. Maybe a teacher tells you that the best you can hope for in life is a minimum-wage job at a fast-food chain and not to set your sights too high. Perhaps it’s watching a parent struggle to make sure there’s enough food on the table or warmth in the room when you have a new friend round whose family don’t seem to have the same financial hardships. 

Sam Wren-Lewis, The Happiness Problem book cover
The New Working Class cover, by Claire Ainsley

Or maybe you don’t ever ask friends to come to your house because there’s nothing in the cupboard to offer them. It could be that you overheard a conversation where someone commented on how scruffy you and your siblings look or criticised your parents for failing to take ‘proper’ care of you. If you’re female, you may have experienced the humiliation and discomfort during adolescence of not being able to afford sanitary products and having to improvise while spending the day fretting that it might not work. 

     If you didn’t grow up in poverty, these sorts of indignities most likely will not have affected you, and you will be unaware of the enduring impact they can have on a young person. You might never have thought much about the reasons people end up trapped by poverty or the dearth of opportunities that keep them there. If you have never lived on the breadline, it’s probably difficult to grasp that for many people, no matter how hard they work at their minimum-wage precarious jobs, they just never have enough to make the rent, eat nutritious food every day, or buy a much-needed new pair of shoes for their kids. You might not have thought about what it feels like to have no choice but to swallow your pride and go to a food bank to stock up on essentials because you don’t qualify for state assistance. Yet, every single day, people all over the US and the UK live with the gross injustice that is being poor and with the humiliation of being blamed for circumstances beyond their control. 

     It doesn’t have to be this way. It really doesn’t. 

     As someone who directly benefited from the structural redistribution in the UK that followed the Second World War including the founding of the Welfare State, affordable council housing, the National Health Service and free school meals, I know that where there is a will, we can provide a springboard to better things for the poorest among us. A fairer, more equitable society where we don’t blame and shame the poor is not beyond the reach of wealthy nations like Britain and America. It’s an honourable, gettable goal.

The End of Aspiration cover, by Duncan Exley
Writing for the Poor cover by Steven King

For a long time in the US and the UK, two of the wealthiest yet most unequal nations on earth, the primary story told about poverty has been that it is the fault of the individual and is the result of personal flaws or ‘bad life decisions’ rather than policy choices or economic inequality. If only people worked harder, if only they ‘pulled themselves up by their bootstraps’ or got ‘on their bikes’ as the one-time Tory Secretary for Education Norman Tebbit once declared, they too could find a job.

     This book is about a ‘shame game’ that is being played out against millions of the poorest people in Britain and America. It tells the story of how a pervasive toxic narrative that shames and blames the poor has secured a stranglehold on our collective understanding of poverty. Drawing on interviews with people who have first-hand experience of poverty in both countries this book documents how a powerful story propagated by powerful people plays a pivotal role in sustaining and justifying high levels of poverty and inequality by repeatedly misrepresenting, and stigmatising, people who are poor. And this book looks at how we can alter the way we talk about and understand poverty in order to shift perceptions and to work towards building a consensus on how to tackle poverty and improve people’s lives. 

Mary O'Hara, The Shame Game book cover image