Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs is a useful tool to help think about people’s needs from the most basic to progressively higher levels of civilised life. The model talks of the most basic needs as being physiological (having food, air, water, sleep etc), then the need for safety and security, love and belonging, self-esteem and confidence and finally (for some lucky people) self-actualisation.
Maslow suggests that people can only work towards meeting their high-level needs when all the low-level needs are satisfied. It is difficult to work on self-confidence, for example, if we are dying of thirst.
It is often observed that the first responsibility of any government is to protect its people – an observation often heard from those lobbying on behalf of the Ministry Of Defence. I would like to think that the first responsibility of the government is to ensure that the physiological and safety needs (at the very least) of all its citizens are met. And indeed, this is largely the case. For centuries, governments have (generally) pulled their levers of power to help ensure that the population collectively has enough food, we have developed infrastructure to ensure that we have clean water, and we have a health service and public health systems to protect us against diseases. We have a framework of criminal and civil law, policed and implemented by professionals to provide (in most cases) the safety and security that we need. We even have a huge educational infrastructure to help us with our self-esteem, confidence and self-actualisation.
It is recognised that these needs are universal, and they therefore needs to be met (if only at a basic level) for everyone who cannot meet those needs themselves. The difficult area is deciding what level of needs should be provided by government (i.e. funded by taxation). This debate is often expressed in terms of how much “subsidy” people are receiving from the state, to have their needs met.
Steve Hilditch has drawn attention to the inconsistent way in which the “subsidy” debate is held. These days, government supporters who are keen on reducing public expenditure will talk about the thousands of pounds that some people receive each year in state subsidy. This is usually to do with the cost of providing everybody with a very basic subsistence-level of income (welfare benefits) and the cost of ensuring people have shelter from the elements that is warm, dry and safe to live in (housing benefits). The amount of “subsidy” provided is then calculated by reference to market rates – how much money the state is paying, because the household is unable to meet their needs themselves. So, the housing “subsidy” the household receives per annum is the difference between the social/affordable rent charged and what the market rate would be. For welfare benefits, it is simply how much money is paid by the state (as the state wouldn’t have to pay anything if the household was earning a living wage in the marketplace).
The inconsistency is that the debate about the National Health Service, the educational system, the police, the Armed Forces etc is never held in these terms. We don’t hear Ministers talking about subsidising the family of each schoolchild by reference to local private school fees, or the amount of subsidy provided to household using the NHS as being the cost of using private GPs or hospitals. And we certainly don’t have this same logic applied to Armed Forces expenditure – it becomes quite bizarre. Is the alternative privately-resourced way of meeting our security needs to club together and hire G4S? And where would we collectively want them to fight and for how long? The mind boggles.
So why the difference approaches to the debate about “subsidy”? Is it because we think that it is realistic that individuals and households can sort out some of their needs themselves, whilst recognising that other needs really do need collective endeavour? We should all be able to find a job, but we can’t all have a rifle and helicopter gunship? We should all be able to pay for a home, but we can’t all be expected to be educated by family and friends?
There is something in this, of course. It is a reasonable way to decide a suitable boundary between public and private provision – if used sensitively.
So what about housing? It spans 4 out of 5 levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Rooflessness compromises someone’s physiological needs. Damp, dangerous and/or overcrowded accommodation compromises safety and security needs. Being forced by public agencies to live away from friends and family (moving from London to Wolverhampton?) compromises our love/belonging needs.
Why is something so fundamental to everyone’s needs apparently so contentious? Why isn’t the provision of reasonable-quality housing at a price affordable by households a nailed-on, taken-as-read duty of government in the same way as is the provision of a reasonable quality healthcare system, civil and criminal justice system, food and water etc?
It baffles me. And to add insult to injury, the current terms of the housing “subsidy” debate is designed to imply a distinction between the deserving and undeserving. Just in case failing to address the bottom three levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy wasn’t enough, this lobs in an attack on the fourth level: self-esteem.