October 8, 2020

Race, Poverty, and Access to Wellbeing in America

Giving Meaning to Wellbeing

What do any of us want but to be well? For many, in the summer of 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, this desire has been more distinctly felt. We are connecting with some of our most basic desires, to live, and to live well, as we confront serious, novel threats to our ability to meet these desires. As we are moving through this unprecedented time and processing all that it brings up, we must also ask ourselves, what does it mean to live well, and who in our society has the ability to do so, regardless of whether we are experiencing a global public health crisis. 

Each of us approaches the answering of these questions through our individual frameworks of thought, which are continuously formed over time by our unique, personal experiences. Many, if asked what it means to live well might highlight experiences of happiness, contentment, and ease. Scholars have attempted to define a broad paradigm for human wellbeing, laying a conceptual framework for what it means to be happy, content, or at ease, and what it takes to get there. Abraham Maslow was one such scholar who gifted us with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a paradigm for human wellbeing that has stood the test of time. Often depicted within a pyramid divided into five sections, like that to the right, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs identifies five categories of human needs which, when fulfilled or unfulfilled, have varying implications on humans’ ability to be well. 

Physiological needs, the most fundamental category in this paradigm for human wellbeing, the base of the pyramid, are literally necessary for humans to live. Moving up the pyramid, we encounter our needs for safety, belonging and love, esteem, and self-actualization. Each contributing robustly to the human experiences of happiness, contentment, and ease, therefore facilitating our ability to live well, but decreasing in importance for simply keeping a human alive. So, we are required to meet the needs within at least the first, and arguably the second, category of the pyramid in order to live. That demonstrates how we can fulfill our first desire, to live, but how far up the pyramid do we need to go in order to live well? 

Accessing Wellbeing

It is important to note that, for Maslow, the yearning to meet each of the five categories of needs did not unfold in a hierarchical manner. Instead, Maslow argued that the desire to meet all needs is present and deeply entrenched in human nature. Our capacity to do so, however, is what unfolds in a hierarchical manner. This means that the desire to form and maintain meaningful intimate relationships, feel accomplished, and achieve one’s full potential are always present, but can only be confronted when the more basic human needs, including both physiological and safety needs are met. 

It is clear that meeting our basic human needs is necessary for living well. Even without the framework provided by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, this assertion is easy to accept. Experiencing food insecurity, having inadequate housing, or being overworked does not inherently make us unable to experience moments of genuine happiness, contentment, and ease. However experiences such as food insecurity, inadequate housing, or being overworked disadvantage us in our quest to live well. They present barriers that must be overcome, challenges that must be faced, and equate us with worry for the possibility of our most basic needs not being met, jeopardizing our first desire, to live. 

Capital, both financial and social, can aid us in the fulfillment of our basic needs. Wealth is highly influential. Most of our basic human needs can be met easily if we have enough money to do so. We can pay our rent, buy enough food to nourish ourselves, and afford to take time off from work when we have enough money. When we do not have enough money, when we are trapped within the cycle of poverty, more time must be spent focusing on attempting to meet our basic needs, taking time away from moments of happiness, contentment, and ease, limiting our ability to live well. Living in poverty, as determined by the federal poverty guidelines, means you drastically lack the funding needed to meet your basic human needs. There are also many low income individuals who do not meet the established federal poverty guidelines but who still significantly struggle to meet their basic-needs. We know that once a family has been impacted by financial hardship or poverty, it is extremely difficult for any individual family member to experience upward mobility in a capacity that meaningfully impacts their life. The cycle of poverty offers an explanation for the generational impact of poverty that we recognize in our communities. It centers around the lack of access to opportunity that poverty generates among those who experience it. The reason for this cycle is lack of capital, which low income individuals who are not necessarily categorized as living in poverty also must reckon with. 

Disproportionately Disadvantaged

We know that poverty does not affect all communities in the U.S. equally. People of color, including Native Americans, Black Americans, and Hispanic Americans are disproportionately affected by poverty. Furthermore, racial wealth and income gaps also exist in America, and are present even when measured such as educational level are controlled for. This means that people of color, families of color, and communities of color, as compared to their white counterparts, are more likely to experience barriers to their ability to live well. 

Moving away from describing the way things are, we can question why things came to be this way. Poverty has been created by humans, just as wealth has been created by humans. Knowing that bias is part of human nature, we must ask which humans created these systems, what biases did they have, and how does this influence our world today. Western society is rooted in imperialism, colonialism, and racism through the nature of the actions we took during our expansion and development. 

Seeking Justice and Embodying Alternatives 

As we move collectively forward and seek to foster a just, equitable society, these issues should stay at the forefront of our minds. For generations, communities of color have been systematically disadvantaged. Restrictions have been placed on the ability for folks for color to live well, oftentimes, to the benefit of white folks. Today, our insufficient acknowledgement and acceptance of our imperialist, colonialist, and racist roots fuel the perpetuation of established systems of oppression. We must ask ourselves, what will reparations for these injustices look like? What will an equitable society look like and how will an acknowledgement of our shared past be incorporated into its actualization? 

YWCA USA’s Theory of Change outlines the process of transforming unjust policies and practices within our society through continuous elevation of key issue areas of focus in a combination of both direct service and education and outreach advocacy work. YWCAs throughout the country and across the globe are engaged in this work. Together, we are working toward the actualization of justice, peace, dignity, and equity for all. Join us in this work by learning more, contextualizing your awareness and developing your vocabulary by exploring our social justice glossary, facilitating difficult conversations among loved ones, exploring ways to give to our agency, and resolving to get involved by participating in acts aligned with our work. 

YWCA Spokane Is Here For You

If you or someone you know is impacted by intimate partner domestic violence, know that confidential advocates are always available through our 24hr helpline services by calling 509-326-2255, emailing help@ywcaspokane.org, or texting 509-220-3725. To learn more about accessing additional services through YWCA Spokane during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit ywcaspokane.org/services.

By: Mia Morton

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