Can you change a situation just by changing the narrative? Even if it is an age-old societal concern? Journalist Mary O'Hara says you can. In “The Shame Game” she urges us to change the way we talk to – and about – people who experience poverty.
Poverty is more than a lack of money. Journalist Mary O'Hara says it also includes the psychological strain of being shamed by society and government.
“The Shame Game” explores the long history of poverty in the United States and the United Kingdom and unsuccessful solutions pursued. O'Hara's childhood and adolescence give context to the data.
The history of shame need not be perpetuated, O'Hara says. By changing the narrative, people who live in poverty can improve how they see their place in society. The goal is to change the wording and attitudes of government agencies who provide services.
O'Hara's Project Twist-It advances the conversation by encouraging gatherings and events that look beyond income levels and focus instead on the shared experiences of communities.
On her own story and how it fits
I don’t usually write about personal stuff. I’m not a first-person kind of reporter. But this mattered to me.
The book was born out of a wider project that I had built called Project Twist It, where I spent 2 ½-3 years building a community of people, like a hub, for people with lived experience of poverty to talk about their experiences, to tell their stories and to challenge these negative assumptions that are made about people experiencing poverty.
As someone who grew up in poverty, I felt that it was important for me in that context to make sure that my story was one of those stories, and I use that in the book as a kind of structural arc through my childhood and adolescence, explaining what it feels like to be poor, what it feels like to be shamed and blamed for that poverty.
On the overlooked symptoms of poverty
Poverty is often associated, in the long-standing definition, with the lack of money, a lack of resources, but actually it’s a much more multi-dimensional experience. And when you talk to people with experience of poverty, they talk about hunger, they talk about needing a roof over their head. They talk about all these practical and very important things that frankly should be human rights, in my view. Access to healthcare. But the other thing that comes up, time and again, is the sheer emotional and psychological strain of being poor. The word they use over and over again is exhausted.
It’s exhausting to be poor. All the forces are pushing against you. Is it any wonder that people feel demotivated? Is it any wonder that people feel like things are stacked against them? Because it turns out things are stacked against them.
On putting the story in the hands of the people who live in poverty
What if it were flipped the other way? What if it was a narrative coming from a different direction, from a different group of people making the case for the opposite? What happens if we construct a different narrative? We have to think differently about how we position an issue. These things do change and can change, and the public’s mind can be changed, because it is about our perceptions and they’re all not based on reality.