A Richer Understanding: Thinking About Maslow and Poverty

This post was originally published in March 2016.

I have been thinking about poverty – causes, impacts and solutions – a lot the last year or so and have spent the last few days jotting down some thoughts. I believe this series, which focuses more on the humanity when thinking about personal finance, and less on the nuts and bolts of saving/investing, is the perfect home for this latest post.

As you close in on financial freedom, you will find that life’s options (e.g. where to shop, where to live, what to eat, etc.) increase exponentially, you have a greater ability to engage in introspection and hopefully, a desire to think – and act – beyond and outside of yourself.

Conversely, those that are mired in poverty have fewer, if any, real options, are less likely to engage in introspection and generally don’t have the option of thinking too much beyond themselves. They are very much stuck in the moment, fighting for survival. It isn’t as if they don’t have the ability or are opposed to introspection and thinking beyond themselves, they simply don’t have the time or energy.

A Lonely Road, the fourth entry in the A Region Left Behind: Lost Opportunity in the Deep South series, courtesy of The Washington Post, perfectly captures this phenomenon. The article tells the story of Lauren, a 28-year old resident of Forest Park, Georgia, and follows her as she hunts for a job.

One day on the hunt is described as follows: sixty-nine stops on a bus, a nine-minute train ride, an additional forty-nine stops on a bus and a quarter-mile walk. Four hours round trip just to submit a job application. She probably wasn’t giving any thought to how the stock market had performed over the last week, whether she preferred kale or spinach in her smoothies, should she work chest or shoulders later at the gym, or when she might make the next contribution to her IRA during that four-hour journey.


Of course, my insight isn’t particularly keen nor new. In his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, Abraham Maslow described his ‘hierarchy of needs’ a now well-known psychology theory. Those who have attained financial freedom are more likely to be comfortably ensconced at the top of the pyramid, having achieved self-actualization. Those who have achieved a measure of job security and financial stability are likely involved in loving/fruitful relationships and have a high level of self-esteem. Conversely, those who are mired in poverty, who struggle to establish a firm financial foundation, continually bounce between the lower two levels, physiological and safety.

It’s hard (impossible?) to have high self-esteem, gain the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities, or think too far beyond one’s self (and the present situation) if struggling to keep the heat on in an apartment and aren’t 100% sure where the next meal will come from.

There is no doubt that those who find themselves mired in poverty have likely made some bad choices. Maybe even some terrible choices. However, haven’t we all? The unfortunate reality is that many poor have never been in a position to make better choices, don’t have reasonable access to capital, and they find themselves mired in a situation that becomes harder to break free of, particularly in a system and economic environment that is not very forgiving.

A statement that has stuck with me since I first saw the documentary Spent: Looking for Change, a SavvyRecommendation, nearly two years ago, was uttered by Justin, a 20-something who started a small production company that shoots videos for corporate clients and is one of the unbanked; someone who relies on check cashing outlets and is all too familiar with payday loans. He noted, “People often judge me on the choices I’ve made, not knowing the options I had.”

Perhaps as you settle into a higher level on Maslow’s pyramid, you will judge less and spend some of your own time and energy looking for ways (e.g. volunteering, making charitable contributions, becoming politically active, sharing personal finance tips, etc.) to help others move higher. If you’re able, look beyond yourself.

Blogger-in-Chief here at RetirementSavvy and author of Sin City Greed, Cream City Hustle and RENDEZVOUS WITH RETIREMENT: A Guide to Getting Fiscally Fit.


  1. Yep, thorny and complex issues. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently – little brother in law is trying to get his driver’s licence and find his first FT job (which very well may hinge on having a licence and / or even a car). Problems: he doesn’t have a car, his mother doesn’t, and $$$ prohibits getting one. We will probably teach him in ours and let him use our car to sit his test in. And then there’s the whole environment he’s grown up in – one where education isn’t valued, nobody has worked in years (they are all on benefits) and there’s just very little passed on terms of real world life skills. Very hard to break out of that. Am offering as much advice as I can (without trying to overwhelm him) and encourage him into considering getting a qualification of some sort.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, my friend. No doubt it’s a complicated issue with innumerable factors. Like you, I have found the best that I can do is encourage, teach, and support those closest to me in the best ways I know how.

  2. One of the worst parts about being middle-class and in too much debt is the stranglehold it has on any desire to be generous. I’ve hated that. As we gradually get our financial house in order, I keep wondering how we can donate most effectively. You’re touching upon a really important topic here, James. I for one would like to know more.

  3. Great post! Reminds me of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous saying: “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” It’s a complex topic that should be discussed more often via all medias, and yes, it’s definitely a lonely road, especially for the third aged people.

    • Thanks so much for dropping by and sharing the Gandhi quote. When thinking of poverty, there is certainly a tremendous amount to think about.

  4. Very good post, and I enjoyed your perspective on some of the root causes of poverty. It’s easy to judge people when you don’t know where they have been or, like one quote in your article said, what “choices they had.”

    • Thanks, Holly. With respect to ‘choices’ people tend to say, “why don’t they just ________.” I encourage people to think of food when answering that question. Even if someone knows what foods would constitute a better diet, that knowledge becomes irrelevant if they don’t have the money that would support a better diet and they may live in an area – and lack transportation to travel very far – that does not provide choices for reasonably priced high quality foods … referred to as ‘food deserts.’ Unfortunately, for some, the foods that are the least expensive and easily accessible are the processed foods that are packed with salt, sugar and fats. If you only have $3 to spend on food at a given point in time, you’re probably going to buy three bags of chips and some sodas to ‘feed’ three people instead of some spinach or cauliflower.

      I encourage people to check out the excellent documentary A Place at the Table which is available via multiple streaming services including Netflix.

  5. Great post James. Just like generational wealth, generational poverty is a reality. Me and Leah watched a documentary called “Crips and Bloods made in America” while this focused on only a small segment of the impoverished in America it opened our eyes as to why this cycle is so hard to break. It also gives a brief history of the plight of the poor in America. At the end of this documentary there are several men and the groups they represent. If people really want to make a positive impact I say send donations to where the problems actually exist and to the people that have risen above the circumstances created for them.

    • “Just like generational wealth, generational poverty is a reality.” Exactly right. Great point, my friend. It is hard to break out of a cycle if all you know is one way to live, do not have positive examples and lack the resources that many take for granted.

  6. Hey, James. Beautiful post. Mrs. Groovy and I talked about it all afternoon. We tried to come up with solutions for Lauren but failed miserably. Unemployed, unskilled, no family, a small child, and two hours from a reasonably healthy job market–those are mighty tough hurtles to overcome. College is a joke. Job training doesn’t appear available. Marriage to a great guy with a good job is probably as likely as winning the lottery. Mrs. Groovy wondered about crowd-funding a car with a gas card to make her commute less onerous. I wondered about crowd-funding the money necessary to start a one-woman micro business. I know it sounds absurd, but maybe if she was given a lawnmower and a gift card for the gas mixture, she could cut lawns for $10-$15 per house. But sadly, we all know that crowd-funding for Lauren isn’t going to happen. Does crowd-funding to help poor people get the basic tools for employment and self-employment even exist? What a mess.

    • It is definitely a tough nut to crack. I’ve come to believe that ideally, we would develop and implement social programs/policies that are designed to raise the base of the pyramid, minimizing the Physiological and Safety levels to the greatest extent possible; in essence, providing maximum opportunity for people to focus on the top three levels. Of course such programs/policies will never come into existence. We are too politically divided and ours is a society that is very much focused on individual achievement and accomplishment. I can already hear the howls of socialism and communism. What I believe we are left with is the hope that those that are in a position to think and act beyond themselves do so on the largest scale possible, touching as many people as possible.

  7. Well written observation James.

    Friday inside the barbershop (where you will always find discussions about politics, race, religion, sports, money, cars and sex) there was a very emotional discussion about politics and how poor people vote. There were no winners and I doubt anyone was able to change anyone else’s point of view.

    My observation rested on thinking styles; mine and others. We derive meaning and process thoughts based on our own experiences. Looking beyond ourselves (also, at times our own experiences) and helping others move higher is better thinking.

    • The barbershop is always a great place for candid, thought provoking conversation. Your observation that we derive meaning and process thoughts based on our own experiences is on point. Indeed. After all, as we mature into adulthood, at that point in time we have nothing but our own experiences to shape our worldview. As we grow older, interact with people that had more opportunities, fewer opportunities, come from different regions, come from different cultures, it becomes obvious that those that have experienced life differently often have different values, have come to different conclusions. The challenge of course, is to try and understand – without judging – how those differences may have led people to make different decisions, some which may have contributed to a much lower economic standing.

  8. This is amazing James. I have lived at both ends of the spectrum, a victim of my own bad choices early on and later the beneficiary of some much improved choices – and an awful lot of hard work. Seeing Flint in the news lately reminded me of the poverty I saw growing up in Michigan. I was born in Detroit and lived just a few miles from where the race riots ensued in 1967. My family was one of the many who moved outside the city as a result of the violence. I have also been to Flint, many times in fact, and these problems are not new.

    I believe we can all make a difference by trying to understand the root cause and thereby become part of the solution. Much can be done and each of us can make a difference. I appreciate your touching on such an important issue as poverty and maybe, just maybe, if we all ban together we can find the solution, one that can impact the lives of the many disadvantaged and impoverished people in this country.

    • Thanks for stopping by and sharing a little of your story, Laura. You hit on two very important points. First, the impact of choices. When people that are disadvantaged to start with, the impact of their poor choices is compounded. Conversely, if they are able to find a way to work hard and make better choices, their chances of finding some measure of success improve. Second, like you, I believe we – society at large – can make a difference if we find ways to work together. In fact, I believe it is likely that unless we find ways to work together and improve the lives of others, we ultimately do damage to ourselves.

      Thanks again for joining the conversation, my friend.

  9. I appreciate you writing this, it gives me a new perspective on the mindset of some of the people I try to help. Low self esteem is something that’s always bothered me when I know people are smart and capable and they put themselves down. It always feels like it comes from comparing themselves to others and I tell them life’s not a competition and there is no such thing as a perfect person. Your “flaws” that you see in yourself could be the thing that someone else loves most about you. I guess I used to have low self esteem too. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get people to lift themselves up that are in low places, usually struggling to make ends meet. Once your in that low mindset it’s so self destructive.

    • ” … how to get people to lift themselves up that are in low places, usually struggling to make ends meet.” I believe Maslow’s hierarchy does a good job of illustrating that those languishing on the lower two levels have low self-esteem and struggle to make ends meet. And as long as they are trapped on the lower levels they aren’t thinking about improving their education/training, an emergency fund, a budget, etc. People often ask, “why don’t they just [fill in the blank]?” They don’t just budget more wisely, eat better, get more sleep, enroll in college, etc. because they can’t see one week into the future, less known 10 years into the future … they are doing all they can to keep their head above water today.

      Thanks for stopping by, my friend.

  10. Wonderful post and very deep compared to a lot of personal finance blog posts I’ve read (and written!). This reminds me of the book Germinal where a particular community struggled just to get by and literally barely had the basic necessities of life. There is no time, energy, or money to be concerned with anything above the basic survival necessities of life.

    • Thanks for the kind words, DC. The idea behind the series, as Brian and I first discussed it, was to look at a different aspect of money/personal finance. Less on the ‘how to save/invest’ – there are plenty of finance related websites and blogs that do that quite well – and more about the value of achieving financial freedom and the role/impact of money within the context of relationships.

      I’ll have to add Germinal to my reading list. What the book describes is what appears to me to be the dilemma for anyone interested in helping alleviate poverty. How do you create an environment where an individual can realize their potentialities and share their talents instead of spending all their time and energy bouncing between the two lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy?

  11. It is hard to get in the mindset of others which is why I believe we rush to judgements. The only experiences I have is my own path and I constantly relate everyone’s choices to my own. However, there are many out there who haven’t had the options I have had and I need to remember that before I rush to judge. We are all just trying to live our lives as best we can.

    • “We are all just trying to live our lives as best we can.” So very true. I believe less judgment and more compassion will serve us all well.

  12. Great post James. I try to be aware that many of the things that preoccupy my mind are solidly first world problems. My wife and I do a lot a volunteering with the needy in our community. I find that in addition to enjoying it, and providing a good example for our son, it really helps keep us grounded…….and thinking about what’s important. I hope you have a great weekend

    • Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Bryan. No doubt that being involved in the community via charitable contributions of time and money is a great way to stay grounded and be reminded of what is most important … relationships. While poverty may not impact each of us directly, there are certainly indirect consequences that ultimately impact us all.

  13. Great post. I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty lately, too. Maybe it’s the upcoming election. Or maybe it’s the upcoming visit to my hometown. Either way, one thing that is often missing from the mainstream media discussion is exactly that: the humanity.

    • Indeed. My experience has been that those that have had some success are more than willing to credit their intellect, hard work, tenacity, etc. and rarely make any mention of inherited advantages or luck. Just as I know that probably 70% of my success owes a lot to luck and circumstances, I have to believe that bad luck and systemic factors have significantly impacted many who struggle with poverty or near poverty.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Amanda.

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