by Mary O'Hara
12th October 2020

The Shame Game: Overturning the Toxic Poverty Narrative by Mary O’Hara is now available as an audiobook. It can be bought on Google Play and other platforms.

“There is an old saying that a week is a long time in politics. In August 2020, as I record my audiobook The Shame Game: Overturning the Toxic Poverty Narrative in the middle of a global pandemic, it would be more accurate to conclude that a day is a very long time in politics.

Even as I’m making notes for this afterword I know the facts I gather will be superseded in no time at all by yet more worrying statistics and analysis. More people’s lives will be upended and more families will be living in the shadow of eviction and distress.

But here we are. The awful, relentless news cycle detailing the deaths and unspeakable health fallout of COVID-19 – and how it has disproportionately affected low-income and poorer people and people of colour – has been terrible enough. But alongside this, the US not only has the highest number of cases of any country in the world and a tragic loss of tens of thousands of lives, it has had mass unemployment and millions relying on food banks, facing desperation and destitution as the Trump administration failed utterly to meet the challenge – all of it exacerbating a health crisis and already entrenched poverty and inequality. Meanwhile, a reckoning around racial justice has shaken the country and the most important and fractious election in modern times is just a few months away. American democracy itself is under threat.

The UK, with the highest death rate from COVID-19 in Europe, has fallen into the deepest recession ever recorded as food banks report unprecedented demand and families live in fear of the government’s temporary support being removed.

Eventually the sticking plasters of furloughs and other actions will be no more and, for many people – people who never for a moment dreamed they would be poor or on the breadline – the realisation may dawn that poverty has structural causes. It turns out that in countries with inadequate social safety nets, rampant inequality, underfunded or non-existent national health systems, and a dominant political creed that divides populations and demonises people for being poor, a single shock to these unjust systems can propel anyone but the super-rich into a downward spiral.

When I began researching and writing The Shame Game in 2018, Britain and America were already cautionary tales for how not to address poverty and inequality. Millions of people were relying on food banks and kids were regularly going hungry. The poorest were forever being blamed for circumstances beyond their control. Children were being told to dream a dream of a better life while the rungs of the ladder were being snapped right in front of them. What happens next in Britain and America feels as critical as it ever has – certainly in my lifetime.

I don’t know if the right lessons will be learned as a result of the health, political, economic and racial convulsions of 2020. I don’t know if better times lie ahead. There are certainly those working hard to make sure a system that protects the rich at the expense of everyone else continues unabated, whose goal is to make sure that the system that has solidified privilege remains intact.

What I do know is that we have no choice but to fight – and keep fighting. 2020 has provided a window into just how fragile our systems are; how disturbingly rapidly our social fabric can be unravelled. However, it has also shown us the strength, resilience and determination of those for whom being at the sharp end of economic and racial injustice is the norm. That people can still stand up, be heard and take the fight to those who would deny our societies justice, fairness and equality.”

Mary O’Hara is an award-winning journalist and author specialising in social policy and social justice. She 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 Pete McKee.

The Shame Game: Overturning the Toxic Poverty Narrative by Mary O’Hara is now available as an audiobook. It can be bought on Google Play and other platforms.


The print version of The Shame Game is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £10.39.

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