Food bank usage is up during the Covid-19 lockdown Credit: PA images

How coronavirus could shift the toxic poverty narrative

Less shaming and more empathy is needed
May 5, 2020

It is rare that the central argument of a book is so eerily transformed by events. If it had not been for the coronavirus, Mary O’Hara’s The Shame Game would have been respectfully received and tidily shelved alongside several other stringent assessments of the ugly politics of austerity.

Instead, over a million previously employed UK citizens have applied for universal credit, with many unable to meet their mortgage and rent payments. In our new world, this reads less a study of them and us, than potentially a book about us all.

O’Hara, a social affairs writer, emphasises the enduring personal shame that the poor endure, interleaving vignettes from her poverty-stricken childhood growing up as one of nine children in West Belfast. She carefully outlines the statistics on the high levels of poverty in the UK (confirmed by the UN), the myths around wealth creation that play down the role of inheritance and low taxation, and the “contempt and hatred” towards the poor fostered by the UK and US governments. Certain tropes—welfare queens, parasitic migrants—recur with depressing familiarity in the popular press.

O’Hara makes clear how far we have nudged closer to the unforgiving American idea that anyone can make it if they work hard enough, rather than drawing on the traditions of our European neighbours with their deeper understanding of the collective good. The one thing that still distinguishes us from the US, she reminds us, is the NHS: now more than ever.

O’Hara also finds hopeful signs in the recent declarations by some of the world’s wealthiest citizens that they are willing to pay higher taxes, and the increasing numbers of young people speaking openly of their experiences of poverty. Now, given the tsunami of economic insecurity unleashed by Covid-19, we have an unprecedented opportunity to further challenge the toxic narratives O’Hara so effectively skewers here.

The Shame Game: Overturning the Toxic Poverty Narrative by Mary O’Hara (Policy Press, £12.99)