The wrong people are feeling shame for Britain's poverty

More than half a million people rely on food banks to eat; almost triple that of the year before. Shame is the logical response - but something has been lost in translation.

I remember noticing poor kids as a child. The ones whose clothes were an inch too short or started the day with dirt on their face.

My primary school was not middle class. Low income parents, with the strange grandness of a swimming pool crumbling at the back of the gates. No one was rich but some were poor enough to stand out. School dinners and a smell that wasn’t soap. Peeling plastic off a paper plate, as one seven year old was set out as different than the rest.

I think about difference sometimes, and the stigma that can come with it. I’ve thought about it more lately, as benefits (and more divisive, certain types of benefits) seem to be increasingly accompanied by a dose of shame. 

This Government is good at shame. It’s less a politics of policy and more one of morality. Not the sort of morality that’s recognisable to many of us, granted. More moralising. Where middle class stay-at-home wives are rewarded whilst single mothers are punished, where unemployment figures are greeted with forcing the jobless into unpaid labour. Be a good little citizen and behave the right way. Even if you can’t, even if you wouldn’t want to.

A Conservative MP said last week that emergency food parcels shouldn’t be given out because people might become reliant on them. “I value responsibility,” Paul Maynard MP said. “I do not believe that immediate food relief should be the role of the Government.”

The problem isn’t food poverty but that going to food banks for help might become “a habit.” As if there were people who found the experience of exchanging a voucher for scraps enjoyable. A free supermarket, where the cardboard boxes are lined with pride and self-esteem is on special offer.

Even the stereotype of stealing a loaf of bread to feed your kids isn’t enough anymore. Now it’s the ones filling in forms to apply for the help Government is meant to give or going to the food banks when that help fails them. Benefits are the new theft. Need – or rather, needing help to meet that need – is the new shame.

More than a quarter of people on benefits say they’ve hidden the fact because they’re worried what others will think, a YouGov study by the new charity coalition Who Benefits? shows today. This rises to half if they are 16 to 24. Over a half of all those who had never been supported by benefits said they’d feel embarrassed to claim.

This is good, isn’t it? If shame made people richer, perhaps. Strangely, the solution to unemployment isn’t embarrassment and poverty isn’t cured by stigma. Shamed people still need help to stop their children going hungry. They’ll just feel bad about themselves as they do.

There’s no martyrdom in going hungry. No one who’s ever faced a choice between the heating and eating found the sacrifice edifying. Few people have seen their children hungry and needed motivation to ‘help themselves’. This seems genuine news to many on the right. Where poverty is caused, not by market, but individual failure, where using benefits is a signal, not of doing what you need to live, but of a lack of personal responsibility.

Responsibility? This Government wouldn’t know the meaning. It lets children get poorer and blames “workless” parents for its crimes. One in five children in this country are now in poverty. Half of disabled people are using credit cards or payday loans to buy clothes or food.  More than half a million people rely on food banks to eat; almost triple that of the year before. 

I wonder if Cameron or Osborne notice. If their kids ever see someone set out as different and think.

The funny thing is, guilt is natural. In the face of this poverty, shame is the logical response. It just happens to be the wrong people feeling it. This Government, whilst it's finding its conscience, should also feel the shame in that.

Volunteer Maureen Wiltshire puts together a parcel of food at a Food Bank depot at St. Paul's Church in Brixton. Image: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496