Want to Get People out of Poverty? Replace Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with Masters Circles of Strength



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Want to Get People out of Poverty? Replace Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with Masters Circles of Strength
By Jim Masters, July 2004
In the 1960’s in our Kansas City Regional Office of the Office of Economic Opportunity a typical one-sentence rationale for some course of action was often given as “You can’t do a good job (at work, in school) if you are hungry.” Or, “You have a hard time concentrating on work if you don’t know where you are going to sleep that night.” These common-sense perceptions were often used as a quick verbal summary of pages and pages of narrative as the rationale for pursuing a particular strategy. In looking more closely at the type of thinking that existed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, we see that the assumptions underlying many current programs were developed then, and like all tacit knowledge, over time they have sunk into the subconscious. In trying to dredge these assumptions up for review, my opinion is that all roads lead to Maslow.
Abraham Maslow first put forth his concept of human motivation and needs in

1943. At the time this was a refreshing change from the dominant theories of the day, the stimulus- response theories promoted by B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov which purported to describe the major drivers of human behavior.


“In 1954, Maslow first published "Motivation and Personality," which introduced his theory about how people satisfy various personal needs in the context of their work. He postulated, based on his observations as a humanistic psychologist, that there is a general pattern of needs recognition and satisfaction that people follow in generally the same sequence. He also theorized that a person could not recognize or pursue the next higher need in the hierarchy until her or his currently recognized need was substantially or completely satisfied, a concept called prepotency.” From: Herzberg's Theory of Motivation and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. ERIC Digest.  By Gawel, Joseph E. 
Federal statutes for anti-poverty programs are rarely-to-never based on, utilize or make even casual reference to a theory of human behavior or motivation. Instead they start with a sliver of something, a perceived absence, a social problem, a deficit, a deficiency. The definition of absence is applied to the population to identify the number of people that which it affects. The benefit or service to be provided is to offset this absence. Lacking a framework of causes of the deficiency or a context within which the need exists, the statute focused on the condition.
And, “Abraham Maslow is known for establishing the theory of a hierarchy of needs, writing that human beings are motivated by unsatisfied needs, and that certain lower needs need to be satisfied before higher needs can be satisfied.” Dr. Robert Gwynne, University of Tennessee, 2004.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs



Figure 1. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow felt that there were “prepotent needs,” if a person was focused on satisfying one type of need, they could not move to other needs until that one was satisfied. Further Maslow argued that the Deficiency Needs -- Physiological Needs (food, drink, air) and Safety Needs (security) had to be satisfied first before the person could move on to the Love, Esteem and Self-actualization Needs. First published in 1943, this concept moved the field of psychology past the simple determinism of the Skinner and opened up the fields of humanistic psychology and the human potential movement. Although Maslow’s theories appear to have had great benefit in those fields, my opinion is that their use as a rationale for anti-poverty strategies has created serious problems. The comments below seek to unravel this bundle of confusion.
Maslow’s model shows how ONE HYPOTHETICAL PERSON might flow from a condition of deprivation to a more comfortable and self-fulfilling life. This Awhole person@ achieves their state of happiness, of intellectual fulfillment, of social recognition, only after they have their basic needs met. However, with regard to the idea that the person must do this in a particular sequence -- I don’t believe it, and a lot of other researchers don’t believe it either. Yes, these concepts permeate the assumptions on which many public policies are based. They are not explicitly stated as part of the policy, but they are there as unspoken beliefs that justify the activities. I want to argue that Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs has been misinterpreted and misused. A few of those errors – as I see them -- are described below.
1. The first trap is that there is a hierarchy.
Anti-poverty activity should be focused on helping people increase their earning-power on the dimension of their relationship to the economy. The reality is that generations of low-intelligence, poorly-educated, substance abusing, personally obnoxious and abusive humans have done quite well in America financially. Some of these Atypes@ of people even today are captains of industry or elected officials. Millions of people have escaped poverty in America but if measured against Maslow=s hierarchy, they are flops. Instead of moving on to love, empathy and self-actualization, they and their money are down there wallowing around in some extravagant version of basic needs. Conversely, one only has to attend a church service, wedding, graduation or even a funeral attended by low-income people to know that there is a lot of love and empathy and esteem that is already in their world.
The reality is that a person can have something to sell in the market economy that will earn them money with or without a large amount of love, empathy or self actualization. And, not only can they be at zero, they can be below zero in terms of the idea of a being complete human. Of the 31 million alcoholics, about 20 million of them get up and go to work every day. Of the 40 million people who are Adiagnosable@ with a mental illness under the DSM IV-R, about 25 million of them get up and go to work every day. Of the 11 million substance abusers, over half of them get up and go to work, everyday. Well, O.K., almost everyday. We all know of people where the condition is so severe that the person never get up and goes to work, but for most people who have these dysfunctions these are manageable dysfunctions as far as their relationship to the economy is concerned. Now they may be sad people, wreaking havoc on themselves, their family or neighborhoods, but that is a separate issue. If we as a society, or your agency as a part of its mission or if you as an individual choose to address these dysfunctions and to try to enhance the quality of life for that person or that family -- that is well and good. Call it therapy. Call it human development. Call it spiritual renewal. Just don=t call it anti-poverty activity unless you can prove that it enhances earning power.
Many social programs use Maslow=s notion in connection with social value assumptions about what a person should be like that are characteristics primarily of middle-class America. That leads us into program activity that is designed to re-make the person, to make the lower-class traits disappear and to help inculcate or to help them acquire middle-class traits. While this may be desirable in a social sense, even if we succeed in making larger percentage of the lower social class into middle class, there are still not enough Agood@ jobs for this expanded middle class, either. And, the percentage of Agood@ jobs as a percentage of all jobs continues to shrink and corporations downsize, layoffs occur, people can only find temporary or part-time jobs. There is no Aassured employment there@ there in the global, national or regional economy even if this human development effort is totally successful in creating a larger number of middle-class people.
2. The second trap is the idea that the person must move in a linear sequential scale up the hierarchy, step-by-step. First we put food in their stomach, then a place to stay, then this and that and finally at some point after we have given them enough stuff on the lower levels then they take off and keep climbing on their own.
The idea that a person Amust= proceed from basic needs up the scale to self-actualization is incorrect. People can enter and leave at any level. They can ignore levels. They can work on one level without having met the needs of a lower level. We can see examples of this in other cultures and in our own culture. Whether it is the holy man or the artist, the entertainer or the lost soul, the recluse or the ‘snowbird’ in their RV, we see people who are just – odd. These are not “normal people” who fit Maslow’s model -- and there are a lot of them.
Most people are partly satisfied and partly unsatisfied on all of the needs postulated by Maslow. So while the idea of people having needs is common sense, the idea that these needs must be satisfied in some particular sequence is not supported either by the research or by everyday experience.
The incorrect premise is that you must have a full stomach, basic education and so on to be able to move to a higher level. Now this may or may not be true for any one person, but we have confused this Ahuman development@ pathway with the anti-poverty strategy in a way that has become self-limiting as far as helping people to earn money. We have led ourselves into a blind alley. We can not escape from this blind alley until we eliminate the confusion -- until we separate human development from anti-poverty activity.
3. Using Maslow’s framework shifts attention to the person’s “needs” and not to their abilities. It puts us into a meet-their-needs thought process instead of creating the conditions in which they can succeed. There is no guidance from Maslow about HOW to meet one of these assumed needs. Maslow provides no clues about the strategies which if adopted by anybody would result in the needs being met.
In other words, if we are going to call it anti-poverty activity then we should look at what it takes for people to get money -- and help them get more. Health and education seem to underlie a person’s ability to earn money. If these two things are there, most people do all right. If either or both of these are missing, the person is in trouble.
4. If we focus first on needs then it usually follows that the social program must help their “clients@ to meet those needs. On Maslow’s Hierarchy, where would you stop? There is no logical cutoff. So – is the program responsible for helping them meet ALL of the needs identified by Maslow’? This is not possible, even if you took years to do it. Even Maslow thought of this hierarchy of needs as representing a lifetime pathway, not as a social service intervention.
Most human development seeks to maximize the potential of the largest number possible. At least one author says there are doubts that every human has the inclination or capacity to become “self actualized.” That number who achieve self-actualization, even in Maslow’s framework, is impossibly small. If, as Maslow perceived, only about 1% of the population is self-actualized, then having this as an ideal target for a social policy is a dead-bang loser. In an age of outcome measurement, having a program with a goal of self-actualization is a recipe for stinging criticism. The only 48 self-actualized people named and described by Maslow include names like Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Frederick Douglas, etc.
5. The next problem is with the defensive needs of food/safety, etc. Herzberg’s theory looks at hygiene factors and motivation factors. His hygiene factors roughly match Maslow’s “Defensive” needs.
However, Herzberg’s motivation factors, including recognition by peers and supervisors, the sense of satisfaction that comes from meaning and importance of the results of a person’s work, and camaraderie in the workplace. These are much more useful as a construct for to help people succeed than Maslow’s increasingly amorphous journey for the tiny group who can make it from love to self-actualization.
Furthermore, according to Herzberg, when the hygiene needs are satisfied, you do not have a happy person, you just remove the causes of unhappiness. The best case scenario here is that the person is at zero. So you can work all you want on these lower level needs, it rarely produces happiness in and of itself – it just removes unhappiness. This important insight explains why so many people appear to be “ungrateful” or fail to express appreciation. If Herzberg is right and I think he is, the first reason is that people simply do not feel it. (The other is that they feel that what was given to them is a “right” and not a “gift.” But that is another paper )
6. Another trap is that when we focus on meeting people needs through public charity donations of stuff (including money, clothes, food, etc) we may be creating confusion of responsibility in terms of what you do and what I do in this society. And we are into the arena of moral hazard. I think some of the best motivators are hunger, fear of not paying the rent, or wanting that appliance or car, or some other object-de-consumer society. The public charity functions, the something for nothing, are also among the more controversial politically. The conservatives claim every time we Agive@ a person some money or some Astuff,@ are we reducing their motivation or confusing them about how the world works. I now think the conservatives are more right than wrong on this point. In other words, there almost no causal connection between giving a person stuff and as a result of that gift they do something that they would not have done anyhow. And I certainly do not think that the stuff we give people moves them to the next level of the hierarchy. To the contrary, it may reduce reduce their motivation to try to do so.
Why is it that misuse of social science can be such good politics? Given the critter food and it will respond with gratitude. Is it that simple? Maslow would be troubled that Skinner’s ‘conditioned response” deserves more of the credit for the current public charity policies that his hierarchy of needs.
7. A focus on the needs diverts our attention from the real problem area which is the lack of good paying jobs that will enable the huge majority of people to live a comfortable life as currently defined in our culture. Whether through automation, efficiency, or hard work by the people who do produce the stuff we need, we have an excess of goods and a shortage of people earning enough money to buy them all. Although the voluntary simplification movement and some environmentalists are trying to get us to cut back, the consumption society appears to in a tight relationship with human nature.
I am not a woe-is-us, all-is-lost, everything-we-did-was-wrong kind of guy. My opinion is that most people do the best they can using the best information they have at the time. Now we know – and it is time to move on. This is really the starting point, not the finish. If we can get past the mental confusion of Maslow’s needs, we still have to:

  • unravel the causes of poverty

  • address the problems with the limited opportunities for work,,

  • make explicit a list of human motivators (use Herzberg’s assumptions),

  • adopt working theories of psychology and sociology for use in social programs, and

  • find the balance of responsibility between the individual and society.

But these inquiries are going to be oh-so-much-easier if we can leave Maslow behind.


Moving forward, we should identify the major factors that cause people to avoid poverty or to get out of poverty. In looking at the number of people who move in and out of poverty over a two or three year period, we see that a rather substantial number of people of working age (about 25%) drop below the income poverty line. Some of them hit and ‘bounce’ within days. Another group stays in poverty only a few weeks. Another group stays in poverty only a few months. Another group are poverty in over a year. Another group stays over two years. And a small group are in for many years. What are the differences between these groups? Why do some people stay in poverty only a short time, and others a much longer time? What do the short-timers have that the long-timers do not have? My opinion is that the people who avoid poverty or who are in poverty only a short period of time have certain kinds of capacities or assets. These can be grouped under four headings (1) financial capital, (2) human capital, (3) social capital, and (4) un-identified. There are always unknowns and mysteries in life, so we will provide a space for them, too.
Whether we are doing an analysis of an individual, a family, a community or a society, we can identify the forms of capital that would enable them to avoid poverty or to be in poverty only a short time. These types of capital provide the capacity or ability for an individual/family/clan/community to live an adequate life, however defined.
While there may be reasons to provide private charity or in rare instances public charity to provide a minimal quality of life (anti-destitution) these generally do not lead to an enhancement of one or more of the forms of capital that do make a difference in terms of how long a person stays in poverty.
Since I am arguing against a hierarchy, I’ll just put them all these forms of capital in a circle. And here it is.







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