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We have to stop shaming the poor

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  


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. 

     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.