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Everyday ethics, Government, Inequality, Opinion

What Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us about government policy

As part of #NaBloPoMo I’m attempting to re-launch my blog, publishing one post per day during November.  For some of those, I’ll be re-posting old content – this is one such post, inspired by Russell Brand talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in his book Revolution.  What he said very much echoed my point here, that it’s becoming increasingly impossible as a result of government policy for many to progress beyond the bottom tier of the pyramid.  This was first published on 26th April 2012.


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory on human motivation which describes the stages of development we go through in order to reach our full potential.

The theory is most commonly expressed (though not by Maslow himself) using a pyramid with our most basic needs at the bottom.  The theory goes that these basic needs must be met before the individual will be sufficiently motivated to achieve secondary or higher level needs.

Those on low incomes or in insecure employment are focussed on the bottom two tiers – the physiological needs (decent food, clothing and shelter) and safety/security (both personal safety and financial security).

21st century UK government policy has been heavily weighted against those on low incomes and especially those whose income is wholly or primarily derived from welfare benefits.  I say UK government policy as opposed to Tory policy because the wave of welfare reform began under Labour and we should be careful not to allow history to erase any of Blairite Labour’s failings solely because the ConDem coalition later sank to previously unthinkable lows.

The policies weighted against those reliant on welfare income include changes to housing benefit, council tax benefit and disability benefits that have already been implemented.  Housing benefit is now paid according to the number of bedrooms the government think you need, so if you have a spare room and lose your job you’re in trouble because there’s not even a grace period for those tied into contracts.  Evictions are beginning to pick up pace.  Under 35’s only get a shared room rate because they don’t deserve even a one bed flat.  And amazingly plans to end housing benefit altogether for the under 25’s were revealed this month.  There is also the pending benefits cap scheduled for April 2013 which the Department of Work & Pensions’ own impact assessment suggests will affect a further 67,000 households; bear in mind this is after all the other cuts to benefit those households have suffered.

The general political theory is: make life harder for those on benefits and they will be motivated into work.  Let’s forget for a moment the lack of jobs in a failing economy and the fact that many of these benefits supported people already in work and focus solely on how the plan stacks up against a motivational theory so widely recognised it appears in hundreds of leadership books, a theory familiar to students of Psychology and Business Studies.

Well, I’m not a psychologist but Maslow’s theory seems to suggest welfare reform is highly unlikely to help get people into work.  Even if there are enough jobs available to meet the needs of the swelling ranks of the unemployed plunging people into deeper poverty may make people less able to find and keep stable employment.

Employment and financial security appear on the second level of Maslow’s hierarchy, meaning you’re only likely to effectively work on those areas if the bottom of the hierarchy is reasonably well taken care of.  These are your physiological needs, including food and sleep.  So you need somewhere decent to sleep and enough money left for food after that.  This is about all a single person can hope for on benefits, and their place to sleep may well be threatened by housing benefit shortfall.  These most basic needs – full housing and council tax benefit plus the amount government determined was the minimum you need to exist on – were previously covered for the jobless, giving them some space to work on the next level (gaining employment and more financial security).  Focussing on job hunting is difficult when you’re worried about homelessness.  Spending any money on travel to interviews and looking presentable is also difficult when your income doesn’t cover your rent.  Government has made it harder for people to get into secure work.

Government and sections of the press also repeatedly call for these same people to set better examples for their children (level 3) and show more respect for others (level 4), presumably failing to realise that every regressive policy they’ve implemented makes it more unlikely the lives of those at the bottom will improve.  This means  the social problems neo-conservatives associate with the underclass will worsen too.  Perhaps that’s why some council’s are already looking to export their urban poor north.


About ethicalgirl

Ethically obsessed tree-hugging leftie.



  1. Pingback: The trouble with Brand(-ing) | Ethical Times - November 4, 2014

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