How we talk about poverty and inequality could be making it harder to solve it. The following is an excerpt from Mary O’Hara’s new book, “The Shame Game: Overturning the toxic poverty narrative.” It looks at the ways in which conversations around poverty in the United States and the United Kingdom shifted toward blaming the poor rather than exploring the broader social policies that may have played a part in systemic poverty. Click the audio player above to hear O’Hara’s interview with Kai Ryssdal.
In May 2017 I wrote one of my regular “Lesson from America” columns for The Guardian about a practice taking place in many US schools that on first encounter struck me as so awful as to be unbelievable. “Lunch shaming” – where youngsters who can’t afford to pay for school meals are shunned publicly, and often in front of their peers – was occurring in numerous places across the country. When working on my column I look out for trends related to poverty, and in 2017 instances of children being humiliated in this way were being shared more and more. The New York Times told the story of one child from Pennsylvania on her first day in seventh grade who qualified for free school lunch but, due to a paperwork mix-up leading to an outstanding bill, watched as her tray of food was thrown in the garbage while she stood in line in the cafeteria. “I was so embarrassed,” the girl told the Times. “It’s really weird being denied food in front of everyone. They all talk about you.” The New York Times article recounted other, similar instances:
A Pennsylvania cafeteria worker posted on Facebook that she had quit after being forced to take lunch from a child with an unpaid bill. In Alabama, a child was stamped on the arm with: ‘I Need Lunch Money’. On one day, a Utah elementary school threw away the lunches of about 40 students with unpaid food bills.
As someone who qualified for free cafeteria meals my entire school career, I know that even when a child goes to school in a disadvantaged area with other kids who qualify, there is still a stigma attached to needing your food to be paid for by a source other than your parents – especially as a teenager when social status becomes almost all-consuming. You know you are a “free school meals kid” – and you tend to wish you weren’t. At my secondary school, which I attended from age 11 to 18, you could spot the free school dinner crowd from the yellow laminated passes we carried to get into the cafeteria. Our headshot pictures were in the middle of three possible squares. Kids whose families could pay (a minority in our school) had a picture in the left-hand box. It was an administratively logical system – there were almost two and a half thousand girls in the school and it would have been chaos if we weren’t categorized in some way – but we still felt it as a label. Nevertheless, the idea that if I had forgotten my pass on any given day and couldn’t prove that my meal had been paid for I would have a stamp put on my hand or I would have to watch as the food meant for me was thrown away in front of me is unthinkable. Set aside for a moment that for many youngsters who need free school meals it’s often the only nutritious food they will receive in a day, the shame alone would have been unbearable. I might also have wondered what the hell the point was of denying food in such a public and punitive manner. Isn’t it inferred that by qualifying for free meals or a subsidy that the child is in real need? Who exactly does it serve to have them go hungry? Who does it serve to throw good food away? An article on the American Bar Association website defines lunch shaming this way:
Broadly speaking, ‘lunch shaming’ refers to the overt identification and stigmatization of any student who does not have money to buy a school meal. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) narrowly applies this overt identification to students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch, in practice legal lunch shaming occurs against students whose family income exceeds free or reduced lunch eligibility thresholds. The purpose of lunch shaming is to embarrass a student and parent(s) so that a school lunch debt is paid quickly, in turn reducing a school’s financial burden.
A number of school districts and individual states have taken action against lunch shaming (New Mexico passed a law to ban it, for example). And, in 2019 one sign of action at a national level came when Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar introduced a Bill to the House to stop lunch shaming. Despite these moves, two years after I first wrote about lunch shaming, yet more reports emerged. In November 2019 a Minnesota school district hit the headlines and apologized when video footage showed that kids with canteen debts of more than $15 had their hot meals thrown out. That children who could not afford to eat in the school cafeteria – and who had no control over those circumstances – were routinely being shamed was, I thought, a powerful reflection of a wider culture where for a significant proportion of people it was deemed permissible, if not encouraged, to participate in a bamboozling variety of tactics for putting poorer people, including young people, down. For years in the US with its harsh conditionality for welfare recipients, those in need of help have been exposed to shaming by the systems they are required to navigate to stand even a chance of qualifying for assistance. In the America of lunch shaming, circa 2017, poor shaming was on steroids – and it was no accident. Almost a decade earlier in November 2008, for a certain slice of the U.S. population the absolutely unthinkable had happened – and it wasn’t the financial crisis. It was the election of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, and the possibility that yes – you’ve guessed it – some poor folk might actually get some help if a black former community organizer had some real power. Having walked into the Oval Office in January 2009 following the greatest financial calamity since the 1929 Great Depression almost a century earlier and grasping (albeit with limitations, but, unlike the Coalition government in Britain, opting not to embark on a full-frontal savage cuts program) that a government economic stimulus was necessary to give recovery a fighting chance, Obama was quickly met with an impassioned wall of resistance. Writing in The American Prospect in September 2008, prior to Obama’s election victory, William Spriggs, then chair of the Department of Economics at Howard University, had this to say: America faces an economic challenge today that is greater than any it has faced since the Great Depression. At that time, Franklin Roosevelt corrected the faults in the economy and created the Social Security Act to build lifeboats for Americans drowned by the failure of the marketplace. He had to create that out of whole cloth. Today, Americans have endured a withering 30-year-old campaign against the nation’s safety net, convinced that we could all go it alone. The post-crash environment in the US – where the poorest and people on low incomes took the greatest financial hit (and in which the seeds of the populist rebellion that led to the Trump presidency, which were incubated during the previous few decades, took root and sprouted) – was expertly exploited by certain quarters in the political arena, along with their kindred pundits in talk radio and Fox News.
That children who could not afford to eat in the school cafeteria – and who had no control over those circumstances – were routinely being shamed was, I thought, a powerful reflection of a wider culture where for a significant proportion of people it was deemed permissible, if not encouraged, to participate in a bamboozling variety of tactics for putting poorer people, including young people, down.
The ‘Tea Party’ movement, a 21st-century exemplar of just how profoundly virulent America’s version of the poverty narrative is and how intricately interwoven it is within parts of the wider culture, emerged in the wake of the 2008 presidential victory and the global financial meltdown, on a mission to dismantle ‘big government’ and, as part of it, programs that might help those in need. It was a contemporary embodiment of conservative discontent, populism and libertarianism, with antecedents throughout American history that harked back to a perceived ‘golden era’ of American rugged individualism, and one which would, for a time, represent a formidable force in the political landscape. As the movement took shape and then gathered momentum in the wake of Obama’s election – and especially in response to the stimulus Bill – and as it triggered an upset in the 2010 mid-term elections which saw Democrats face one of their biggest defeats in 70 years – it went hell for leather in the ensuing years after its designated targets:
- Government (too big by far)
- The deficit and national debt (ditto)
- Taxes (too high by far)
- Healthcare reform (an abomination)
- Welfare spending (a blight on American democracy, freedoms and liberty).
As this article from 2010 by the founder of the Dallas Tea Party, Phillip Dennis, explained on CNN, the mission (while evolving) was explicit and powerful:
The Tea Party groups viewed the stimulus bill as the crowning moment of decades of irresponsible government fiscal behavior. The federal government is addicted to spending, and the consequences are now staring us in the face. The Tea Party’s goal from inception has been to replace big-spending politicians from both political parties with common-sense, fiscally responsible leaders …
We have gone from a nation of self-sufficient producers to a nation divided between overburdened taxpaying producers and some nonproducers who exist on welfare from cradle to grave … fraud and welfare waste must be eliminated. Welfare and unemployment benefits must be drastically cut. Welfare, health and education services for illegal immigrants must be eliminated.
The fervor of a movement determined to shrink government and root out so-called “dependency” and which put people like Sarah Palin on the national stage, with a shot at being Vice President, turbo-charged the toxic poverty narrative as a political stick to beat Obama and progressives with and in the process injected fresh steam into the anti-welfare contingents around the country. Flourishing alongside and being awarded policy credence within the Republican Party by Paul Ryan’s efforts in his 2008 ‘Roadmap for America’s Future’ and later attempts to ‘reform’ welfare, the pillars of the poverty narrative were buttressed further. Who can forget Ryan’s poetic tendencies on the issue when he declared that the safety net was like: “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into complacency and dependence”?
Among the many multi-pronged attacks waged by conservatives, one that stood out (although it really is hard to choose) for the sheer vehemence with which it was pursued was the conflating of drug addiction, poverty and welfare. That a link was being made between addiction and welfare wasn’t new. However, the Tea Party era ushered in ever-more vigorous attempts in various states at various times to require welfare applicants to “pee in a cup” before standing a chance of government assistance. Proving “personal responsibility” by being drug-free to get your benefits was a repeated rhetorical tool. The push included moves to require applicants for cash assistance or unemployment benefits to be drug tested and, if found positive, denied access to assistance programs, for example. It was a key plank of the Tea Party endeavor to transform the fallout from the financial crisis into a narrative of their choosing and it seeped through to senior ranks of the Republican Party. (The idea was still being pushed after Trump was elected.) Mitt Romney, who under Trump came to be regarded as one of the few Republicans in the Senate willing to occasionally utter a criticism against him, while on a campaign stop during his 2012 presidential bid, endorsed one of Georgia’s not so moderate efforts to require people applying for cash assistance to be tested. Romney said: “It’s a great idea. People who are receiving welfare benefits, government benefits, we should make sure they are not using the money for drugs.” As Rebecca Vallas at the Center for American Progress would later point out, the aim of pursuing drug testing for claimants intersects with other core objectives on the right of the GOP. It has a dual benefit for its peddlers in that it stigmatizes (poor) drug users and (poor) non-drug users simultaneously. The push that came for drug testing of benefits applicants in the aftermath of the Great Recession would serve as extra fuel to the fire of the anti-poor narrative under Trump, including Paul Ryan’s (Mitt Romney’s running mate back in 2012) mission to upend welfare while Speaker of the House of Representatives. Writing in January 201829 in reference to the GOP’s rationalization of cutting welfare to tackle the deficit and where the ongoing obsession with drug testing fits in, Vallas reflected:
They know their best chance at cutting popular programs is to convince the public — and their counterparts across the aisle — that cuts are ‘unavoidable’ in the name of deficit reduction. Meanwhile, in a time-honored linguistic sleight of hand, they’re trying to smear everything from Medicaid to nutrition assistance to affordable housing programs as ‘welfare’ in need of ‘reform’. Make no mistake: Slashing Medicaid, Medicare, nutrition assistance, affordable housing, disability benefits and other programs that help families afford the basics isn’t ‘welfare reform’ any more than giving huge tax cuts to billionaires and wealthy corporations is ‘tax reform’. Rather, it’s part of a carefully calculated strategy to reinforce myths about who these programs help, complete with a trusty racist dog-whistle. Ditto the GOP’s obsession with drug testing. (Spoiler: Public assistance recipients actually use illegal drugs at lower rates than their more well-to-do counterparts.) But hey, no better way to stigmatize people who turn to assistance than to make them all out to be “addicts.”
The story being crafted and repeated by Tea Partiers made huge political waves, even when some key progressive messages were getting through. Perhaps most notably from the Occupy Movement, which managed to profoundly puncture the national consciousness with its eminently digestible, comprehensible and compelling catchphrase to frame inequality in a way people could easily understand – “We are the 99 per cent.” However, it couldn’t drown out the potency of the Tea Party’s harnessing of an already deeply ingrained anti-poor narrative. In a quintessentially American fashion, their passion for slashing government spending (backed by numerous conservative economists, think tanks and pundits) cemented the undermining of welfare and healthcare. With its perpetual moralizing – including by Tea Party politicians as they took power and gained a national platform – it mirrored in many ways the rhetoric and substance of the austerity engineers in Britain. Also, as with Britain, there are plentiful instances of the shame game in action.
“The Shame Game: Overturning The Toxic Poverty Narrative” by Mary O’Hara. Copyright © 2020 by Mary O’Hara. Excerpted with permission by Policy Press, University of Bristol.