Pope Francis expounded on this social injustice last week during his trip to the U.S. when he acknowledged the divide between some of the world’s wealthiest and “those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic.” While speaking in New York City to the United Nation's General Assembly he urged them to work together to push a global agenda of peace and identified that “big cities conceal the faces of all those people who don’t appear to belong, or are second-class citizens.” During a stop in Washington D.C., he acknowledged these ‘second-class citizens’ who were clearly visible to him by choosing to have lunch with them rather than members of congress.
Between the end of World War II and the late 1970s, incomes in the United States were becoming more equal. Incomes at the bottom were rising faster than those at the top. However, since the late 1970s, this trend has reversed. Between 1979 and 2012, the top 5 percent of American families saw their incomes increase 74.9 percent while the lowest 5 percent of families saw a decrease in income of 12.1 percent. This growing disparity ensures that political access will always be concentrated at the top, resulting in a small group of individuals who are in control and unresponsive to the needs of the majority of people. Despite being the wealthiest nation in the world, the United States has the highest levels of poverty than any other western democracy. In 2012, 46.5 million people, comprised of 16.1 million children, were living in poverty. These statistics are more on par with Romania than with countries like Canada, France or Germany and make it extremely difficult for anyone to make the case that this country is actually a true democracy.
As long as poverty exists, equality is impossible to achieve. Without equality, we will always have a very small percentage of the population able to access political powers through huge monetary donations in an effort to influence legislation and social policies that ensure that they will always be able to maintain their scope of power, money and influence at the expense of the most vulnerable populations.Pope Francis’s position is that you would have to be less than human to not be concerned by this contrast and imbalance. Gandhi believed that this contrast was an expression of contempt, indifference and violence and that these individuals who continue to inflict poverty through this well-honed and widely accepted political power-dynamic are the worst criminals in history.
On a much smaller, yet equally troubling scale, I live in a university town that was once home to Thomas Jefferson. It is a mecca for intellectual, artistic, culinary, entrepreneurial and musical pursuits. At first glance, it appears to be made up primarily of extremely comfortable and affluent populations. However, a recent report released by the Charlottesville Works Initiative identified that in a city of 45,538 residents, over 27% of the population lives below the poverty line. That translates to 12,295 men, women, and children who lack self-sufficiency because they are struggling every day to meet their basic needs. In 2014, Feeding America found that Charlottesville had a food insecurity rate of 17.9% overall and 14.8% for children which means that 8,151 individuals, comprised of 6,740 children, do not know where their next meal is coming from. A 2014 study by the University of Virginia identified that poverty and its consequences, such as inadequate nutrition, persistent anxiety, and intellectual and emotional impairments affect the daily lives of 615,479 children living in the state of Virginia.
During the first five years of my post-graduate work, I worked exclusively with these at-risk populations and got to see up close the long-term, multi-generational impact that economic distress and poverty inflicts on individuals and families. It is an environment of uncertainty in which the most fundamental and basic necessities of life such as food and shelter are not guaranteed and the legacy of such extreme uncertainty at the basic level of survival continues well beyond childhood.
The importance of proper nutrition in the first few years of life is further highlighted by neuroimaging studies which have shown that poverty is closely associated with smaller brain volumes in areas involved in emotion processing and memory as well as impaired cognitive functioning in areas of language, memory, and executive functioning tasks. In addition, prolonged stress associated with extreme poverty increases the risk of mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder leading to greater degrees of social isolation.
In 1943, a psychologist by the name of Abraham Maslow identified that people are motivated to achieve certain needs and identified those needs in a 5-stage hierarchical model shaped like a pyramid. Beginning at the bottom of the model and moving upwards, the five stages are physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and actualization. The two lowest tiers encompass basic physical needs such as food and shelter and include the need to feel safe and secure. According to his theory, every person has the desire to move up the hierarchy toward the level of self- actualization. Unfortunately, progress will always be disrupted by an inability to meet the most basic needs.
In my private practice, the primary focus is in helping the individual move towards greater expressions of self-actualization. Much of the time is spent identifying, challenging, and healing whatever ‘imprints’ are informing beliefs and perceptions that limit the individual’s capacity to move beyond the four lower tiers in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. However, whatever level the individual is functioning at determines where we begin the therapeutic process. Employment, child care, transportation, health and nutrition are all topics that end up being explored in an effort to move the individual beyond the level of ‘survival’. Only then does it make sense to explore topics such as self-esteem, integrity, creativity, spontaneity, and spirituality. Regardless of where we begin, the fundamental understanding is that the individual has the capacity to take this journey but must first ‘unhook’ from the perception that external forces will always control and determine the outcome. This is a BIG part of the social, economic and cultural conditioning that we’ve been at the effect of for thousands of years. Maslow believed that only one in a hundred people become fully self-actualized because our society rewards extrinsic motivation based on esteem and love. Future articles entitled “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” and “The Dance of Relationship” explores the impact of this social conditioning further.
Intrinsic motivation refers to a quality of motivation that comes from within the individual rather than from any external reward. Performing a task or action for the sake of pure pleasure and enjoyment is an example of intrinsic motivation. Identifying what ‘feeds the soul’ and ‘nourishes the heart’ and acting on it, is the key to moving to the top tier of Maslow’s pyramid. However, when you’re extrinsically motivated to do something, you’re not concerned with whether or not the action is enjoyable but whether or not the outcomes will meet your physical and emotional needs.
If an individual has experienced a childhood full of chronic stress and trauma associated with extreme poverty, the biggest impediment in moving beyond that experience is social conditioning. Seeking and realizing personal potential and growth is everyone’s birthright. Imagine if we lived in a country that was not violent, a country in which the distribution of wealth was more balanced and every man, woman and child lived in the safety and security of knowing where their next meal was coming from. Imagine how that would impact everyone. Imagine a life that was not fueled by fear and anxiety. Imagine a life in which intellectual, creative, and spiritual pursuits were the primary focus; in which our social conditioning reinforced that personal freedom was the desired and expected outcome. Imagine that.