Book review: ‘The Shame Game’ lifts the lid on toxic poverty narrative


By VIEW editor Brian Pelan

Many years ago my late father Joe and I had a conversation, over a few pints, about the subject of poverty.

I don’t recall why we were discussing it but I do remember, probably for the first time, saying; “We were poor dad when our family was growing up, weren’t we?”

My dad did not hesitate with his reply. ‘Yes son, we were.”

There was no shame in his voice – just a factual statement about our family’s circumstances, like many others in Belfast.

‘This book is about a ‘shame game’ that is being played out against millions of the poorest people in Britain and America’

I thought of this conversation after reading journalist Mary O’Hara’s excellent new book, ‘The Shame Game – Overturning the Toxic Poverty Narrative‘.

Journalist and author Mary O’Hara

In her introduction, Mary writes: “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 and it asks how we might bring this to and end.”

Although Mary did not intend it, this book is even more relevant now – set against the raging Covid-19 pandemic and the warnings of economic gloom and hardship in the coming months and years.

The author recalls an incident at a dance competition in Belfast when she was young. She felt that people at the event had treated her with a mixture of “pity and disdain” because of the way she was dressed.

“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 (though I certainly hadn’t heard of the concept yet) with a stigma attached to it. Being poor or ‘on welfare’ was a source of shame’.

I recalled vowing never to watch ‘Benefits Streets‘ – the Channel 4 documentary series that aired in 2014.

The documentary series, produced by the film company Love Productions, set out to “reveal the reality of life on benefits, as the residents of one of Britain’s most benefit-dependent streets invite cameras into their tight-knit community”.

The programme, which featured residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham, attracted an audience of around five million people.

After the first episode was screened, people took to Twitter to post comments such as: “I want to walk down #BenefitsStreet with a baseball bat and brain a few of these scum bags,”, or “Set fire to #benefitsstreet” and “Should just terminate all the scroungers, gas them in their sleep #benefitsstreet”.

Mary refers to this series in her book. “It was impossible during the austerity years to be unaware of one of the most disquieting and distinguishing developments in poor-shaming by popular culture on television.”

The Shame Game‘ is a welcome addition to all those who reject the ‘toxic poverty narrative’.

It is detailed, hard-hitting and thoughtful.

Karl Marx once wrote – “The rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs.” We need books such as ‘The Shame Game’ (published by Policy Press) to remind ourselves that being poor is not a self-choice but something that is inflicted by those who hold the levers of power and wealth.

THE SHAME GAME: Overturning the toxic poverty narrative



Check out Changing the Poverty Narrative One Story at a Time