What does it mean to be poor in Britain and America? For decades the primary narrative about poverty in both countries is that it has been caused by personal flaws or ‘bad life decisions’ rather than policy choices or economic inequality. This misleading account has become deeply embedded in the public consciousness with serious ramifications for how financially vulnerable people are seen, spoken about and treated.
Drawing on a two-year multi-platform initiative, this book by award-winning journalist and author Mary O’Hara, asks how we can overturn this portrayal once and for all. Crucially, she turns to the real experts to try to find answers – the people who live it.
"A necessary book in divisive times." Jameela Jamil, actress and activist
"Following up on Austerity Bites, Mary O’Hara shows us why poverty sucks. Not just for the obvious reasons of struggle and deprivation, but because poverty is produced by a specific style of politics that revels in the shame of others, a politics where the US and the UK are past masters." Mark Blyth, Brown University and author of Austerity: The history of a dangerous idea
"The Shame Game is the book we need right now. Real stories, by people who have lived that story, smashing apart the divisive narratives around poverty that are so damaging to all of us." Kerry Hudson, author of Lowborn
"In a time of extreme social and economic division, Mary O'Hara lifts the lid on who truly benefits from keeping us divided and how we can flip the script of poverty to make a fairer society for all. A powerful and important book." Mahsuda Snaith, author of How to Find Home
“Rich people should be required to read this book and poor people should be allowed to. I have rarely seen a more broad and beautiful picture of people who have done more with less than this book. O’Hara has woven a rich tapestry of joy and terror and talent and lost opportunities and the picture she draws is the most comprehensive description of poverty I’ve seen yet.” Linda Tirado, journalist and author of 'Hand to mouth'
"I worked with Mary, and she sees the potential of talent and magic in every kid and every adult. This book explores the absolute travesty of blaming each other." Conrad Murray, BAC Beatbox Academy
“At a time when people who experience poverty are stigmatised in the arts and media on a daily basis, Mary O'Hara's illuminating book presents a powerful condemnation of the shaming narratives that target the most vulnerable in our society.” Paul Sng, Filmmaker
Mary O’Hara is an award-winning journalist and author specialising in social policy and social justice. She was inspired to write about social issues in part because of her experience of childhood poverty growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Mary freelances across a number of publications and platforms including The Guardian and Mosaic Science. She was named International Columnist of the Year in 2017 and 2018 by the Los Angeles Press Club Southern California Journalism Awards for her Guardian column, Lesson From America. She is also an executive producer on the podcast Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness and founder of the anti-poverty initiative, Project Twist-It.
Mary is the author of Austerity Bites: A Journey to the Sharp End of Cuts in the UK and has contributed to other books including The Violence of Austerity (Pluto Press, 2017) and ‘Council Skies’ (2019) by the artist PeteMcKee. In 2009-2010 she was an Alistair Cooke Fulbright Scholar at UC Berkeley. Mary is also the founder and chair of the David Nobbs Memorial Trust.
PART I : The inconvenient truth: poverty is real
A short prologue
1 Who are these ‘poor’ people anyway? Being on the breadline in Britain
2 What? There are poor people in the richest nation on earth?
PART II: Turning the screw on poor people: shame, stigma and cementing of a toxic poverty narrative
3 A twisted tale: evolution of a the poverty narrative
4 Lights, camera, vilification: the narrative in action
5 The games we play: weaponising the narrative
6 Shame on you: making the toxic narrative stick
PART III: Flipping the script: challenging the narrative war on the poor
7 Feeling it: the truth about living in poverty
8 Changing times: fighting poverty, not the poor
9 New generation: young people writing their own script
10 Altered images: constructing a new narrative