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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.

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

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.