The theory of the Hierarchy of Needs is a chart system used to describe our psychological needs and desires, and the priorities of those needs. The theory was formulated by Dr. Abraham Maslow, a highly respected twentieth century psychologist who primarily studied human personality and behavior. Maslow’s hierarchy asserted that our needs come in levels, and that baser needs must be met before there is any motivation to pursue higher needs and desires. Maslow’s research regarding the hierarchy of needs can easily apply to the conditions of individuals and families living in poverty. Poverty is a perfect demonstration of how needs can go unmet, disallowing one’s personal ascension up the hierarchy to higher motivations. Poverty not only affects and endangers individuals, but it is also a disservice to communities, and to our potential to become a greater global civilization.
Abraham Maslow was born to a poor Jewish family on April 1, 1908 in Brooklyn, NY, at a time when the area was rife with bitter anti-Semitism. Although Maslow has taken an atheistic stance on religion very early in life, (ironically) that fact had no effect on the anti-Semitic hatred and violence he faced on a regular basis. The hatred on the streets and the tension at home motivated Maslow to practically live at the library, where he read every child's book and then most of the adult books. Knowledge became his refuge and, being the first born son, his family insisted that he continue his education in college. (Hoffman, 1988)
Maslow became especially fascinated with psychology and human behavior while studying monkeys and apes with Harry Harrow at the University of Wisconsin. Maslow worked with Dr. Harrow for many years and earned all of his degrees at the University, including his Ph. D. He wanted to study the psychology of higher human potential. Maslow wanted to contrast the gloomy and deterministic approach to psychoanalysis that Freud developed (Hoffman, 1988). Maslow contributed many theories of personality to the field of psychology, but arguably his most recognizable theory is his “Hierarchy of Needs”.
Maslow sought to discover what motivated people, enabling them to thrive and achieve their best possible potential. He studied people's wants and needs, and the priority of those wants and needs, and came up with what he called the "Hierarchy of Needs" (Hoffman, 1988). We visualize the hierarchy in charts as a pyramid built in levels, and there are five levels of need. The first and most broad level includes all the needs of basic physical and biological survival, including air, food, water, sleep, and warmth. Within the first level certain biological needs take priority over others as well. For instance, his studies conclusively showed that a subject that was both hungry and thirsty, the desire for water overshadows the individual's desire to eat. (Maslow, 1970)
The second level in Maslow's hierarchy is the level of safety needs which reflects a person's need for security. This level includes the desire for law and order, structure, routine, and protection, such as by our parents as children or the police when we are adults. The second level also addresses our need for a consistent and steady home. If an individual does not have the feeling of being “safe”, little or no attention can be placed on pursuing higher needs. (Maslow, 1970)
The third level is our need for a social network. We have a need to feel a sense of belonging, emotional security, love, and affection, for and from others. This level is where we nourish our relationships with friends and family and establish an emotional support system. With the first three needs fulfilled in some manner, Maslow asserts that the individual is now capable of focusing spare energies on higher needs beyond simple survival. (Maslow, 1970)
The fourth level is the level of esteem needs such as a desire for responsibilities, status, personal and professional accomplishments, a public reputation, and higher goals. The peak of the pyramid, the fifth level, is the seeking if self-actualization, which is a deep level of personal growth and internal self-fulfillment. The fifth level represents a very high level of personal insight and understanding. (Maslow, 1970)
Maslow proclaimed that each base level had to be fulfilled before the next level of need could be given focus or energy (Maslow, 1970). In circumstances of poverty, wherein the first two levels are not met on a consistent basis, people suffer greatly from a lack of fulfillment, enrichment, and an array of psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety (Santiago, 2011). The daily worry and stress caused from existing in a state of constant, or near constant, survival mode acts as an oppressive force against positive psychological development. The results of poverty damage the individual, the community, especially the children, and with the children the cycle of misery continues. (Williams, 2010)
A study done by Evelyn S. Williams focused on the effects of poverty in Kenya. She focused primarily on the general population of poor Kenyan families. This study examined the relationships between socioeconomic status, neighborhood disadvantage, poverty-related stress, and psychological functioning. Her survey studies conclusively show that higher income levels are directly linked to lower levels of stress. The conclusions as to poverty-induced stress demonstrated that the higher the stress level, the higher the incidence, and intensity, of anxiety and depression. Her studies also show that living in a poor neighborhood is also a chronic stressor; unemployment, and a lack of mobility, creates communities with fewer resources and higher crime, thus fewer positive opportunities. (Williams, 2010)
William’s studies, as well as other social causation studies, have conclusively shown that living in poverty has a devastating effect on the psychological well-being of adults and children. In women the study shows a higher occurrence of somatic symptoms, while men showed heightened aggression, delinquency, and social problems. Poverty-stricken individuals who are educated seem to experience even greater frustration and dissatisfaction from their situation, than less educated people. All symptoms proved to be generally elevated in children. This additional symptomology in children may be due, at least in part, to the added frustration of having no control over their socio-economic status. (Williams, 2010)
Employed families that are impoverished have a lower self-satisfaction rating overall than did poor families who had no employment opportunities. While financial worries may be less severe in homes with employed adults, the children of such families must often do without their mother's, or another adult's, guidance, comfort, and supervision, which often leads to greater psychological disorders for those children (Santiago, 2011). Young children need the security and the comfort of having their mother, and the stress of being away from the home and the children also adds to the stress mothers face. This forced absence of a child’s first and primary support system denies, not just the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy but, the third level of the hierarchy of love, support, and a sense of belonging. (Maslow, 1970)
It is imperative that we understand that poverty contributes to the development of a wide range of psychopathology, and that great damage will be done, especially to children, if there is no concerted effort to reform the economic systems in all areas of great poverty, and to develop some form of intervention strategy to combat poverty and its harmful effects. Having a low socio-economic status, limited income, and limited resources creates a vicious cycle of poverty by limiting opportunities for higher employment and achievement. The most common psychological effect of living in poverty is depression from the stress of barely getting by day to day. The stress of the instability of poverty eats away at one's emotional stability (Santiago, 2011).
If you have to live in a small town in the United States, but there is no work to be found, then you must seek work in a larger area and commute. The bus doesn't come to the town and cabs are too expensive (or non-existent), so you have to rely on your own car. A minimum wage job pays less than three hundred a week before taxes, which is less than twelve hundred dollars a month. Even if you are single, with no children and work two full time jobs, which is less than twenty four hundred a month. That could barely cover cheap rent area, gas, phone service, electric, internet (truly a necessity now), car insurance, food, water, household supplies, and bare necessities. Even two jobs paying a low wage could not cover health insurance, cable, car repairs, vet bills, family crisis, and certainly not holidays or vacation time. This scenario also leaves very few people the ability or time to go to school in an effort to elevate one's financial status. This is an existence of constant stress and concern over the next possible crisis that may cause you to lose your home, your car, and your means to make a living. What if the car breaks down? How will you get to work? How are you going to get the money for the repairs? What if you fall ill, or suffer a severe injury and have to be in the hospital where you can't work? Maslow's theory of needs and desires tells us that such a scenario of endless, unrelenting stress to survive leaves very little or no room for higher forms of self-fulfillment and betterment, such as self-actualization (Maslow, 1970).
Debt is also a major contributing factor to the cycle of poverty and poverty-related stress. Money lenders and banks set up the system to reward those that can afford to pay more, and to punish those who cannot. Historically poor people have had a difficult time convincing money lenders to loan them money at all. Impoverished borrowers who manage to gain approval for a loan have higher risk premiums as well as putting up collateral such as their house or car. If a poor person fails to pay back a loan then the lender can take legal actions against the borrower, which may result in the garnishing of their wages, or the seizing of their house or car. (Mink, 2004)
Money values have changed dramatically over the years. Even though wages were far lower in the sixties and seventies, that low wage could still sustain a household of people with minimal burden and stress:
"In 1999, a full-time minimum-wage worker earned $157 less than the income required to reach the two-person family poverty threshold, whereas a full-time worker earning the minimum could have maintained a three-person family above the poverty threshold in 1969 and over most of the 1970s. During the 1980s, with no increases, the earning power of the minimum wage relative to the family poverty thresholds declined steadily, falling below the two-person threshold for the first time in 1985 and not rising above it again until 1997. (Mink, 2004)"
Poverty stricken individuals are also faced with more chronic, uncontrollable life events. Medical care is a serious issue since most poor individuals are either uninsured or under-insured. Even if they are covered they still have to worry about getting hurt or sick and being out of work. In developed countries with socialized healthcare there is still a higher incidence of disease among poor families and individuals. If they are not covered, they face horrifying medical debt, or death, in many cases, if they go untreated (Williams, 2010). Poor families are exposed to more dangerous and deteriorating neighborhoods, more crowded and noisier homes, more conflict and instability in the family, and more polluted air and water. There is a higher degree of smoking, drinking, obesity, poor diet, and sedentary lifestyles among the poorer communities as a result of dealing with chronic poverty-induced stress (Santiago, 2011). Chronic stress has been well documented to lower the immune system and cause more frequent sickness and chronic ailments (State Government of Victoria, 2010)
Everyone has to deal with certain levels of stress and anxiety, but when stress and anxiety is a constant, daily occurrence it can lead to a number of physical and mental disorders. Chronic stress has been linked to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and even heightens the risks for certain cancers. Anxiety can also trigger different anxiety disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, panic disorders, and other specific phobias and generalized anxiety disorders. Left untreated, any amount of chronic anxiety can lead to clinical depression, which can cause insomnia, loss of energy, restlessness, suicidal thoughts, feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, weight loss or gain, and a reduced ability to concentrate or think clearly. (State Government of Victoria, 2010)
Impoverished individuals and families often have to go long periods, and even years or lifetimes, without ever having their first two levels of basic needs fulfilled. Those individuals run the risk of never having the intellectual or emotional energy to focus on the fulfillment of higher needs and goals. When your life is about surviving each day, there is little or no opportunity to practice art forms or any other means of personal growth or expression.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs asserts that individuals need to fulfill the lower level basic needs in order to progress beyond needs for survival (Maslow, 1970). However, years after Maslow's original hierarchy was published, Maslow wrote that in certain situations a person may progress all the way up the hierarchy without first having lower needs met completely. He specifically used the circumstance of poverty as an example wherein the progression of the hierarchy changes. The key to success is in the third level of social ties and relationships. Maslow found that with a strong, supportive family or social network of friends, many individuals can rise above their lack of basic needs and focus on higher needs of personal betterment. (Maslow, 1971)
Much of Maslow’s own experiences of poverty, loneliness, and frustration in his youth likely compelled his motivation to study the human experience during times of personal trial and hardship. His work brought great strides to the psychological community, and he helped many people to realize that the individual must be psychologically nourished and fulfilled in order to reach optimum potential. Maslow ultimately came to the conclusion that a strong emotional support system could greatly make up for unmet needs of survival and safety, but without any support there is little hope for any higher needs to be met (Maslow,1971). This leaves the individual in a state of constant survival-mode, which leaves no mental energy for higher, creative pursuits. What a sad world this would be indeed without the higher aspirations in life, such as art, music, literature, and other forms of personal achievement. Our society would be for the better if more could come to understand and acknowledge the works of Abraham Maslow and apply it to the ills of poverty in all areas of the world. Maslow himself said, “Classic economic theory, based as it is on an inadequate theory of human motivation, could be revolutionized by accepting the reality of higher human needs, including the impulse to self-actualization and the love for the highest values” (Maslow,1971).
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Hoffman, E. Ph.D, (1988) The Right to Be Human: A Biography of Abraham Maslow. McGraw-Hill.
Maslow, A. H. (1970). Motivation and Personality. Revised by R. Frager, J. Fadiman, C. McReynolds, & R. Cox. New York : Addison Wesley Longman, c1987
Maslow, A. H. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. The Viking Press: New York.
Mink G., Connor, A. (2004) Poverty in the United States: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, and Policy. ABC-CLIO
Santiago, C., Wadsworth, M., Stump, J., (2011) Socioeconomic status, neighborhood disadvantage, and poverty-related stress: Prospective effects on psychological syndromes among diverse low-income families. Journal of Economic Psychology 32 (p 218–230)
State Government of Victoria (February 2010). Stress can become a serious illness. Retrieved February 14, 2012, from http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/...
Williams, E. (May 2010) Poverty in kenya: an assessment of need fulfillment, physical health, and mental well-being. A thesis submitted to the Kent State University Honors College