I don’t envy the people who are trying to identify the country’s basic needs during an economic downturn. Legislators and foundations, in particular, must feel enormous pressure to determine appropriate strategies for addressing the most pressing needs. Of course that is true at any time, no matter the state of the economy. But when resources are in short supply, it would seem especially relevant.
It seems impossible to come to a definitive answer. I look at the work of my clients and would struggle to prioritize their relevance to the community. One client, Loaves and Fishes, provides daily meals at eight different locations around the Minneapolis/St Paul Metropolitan Area. When the organization started over 20 years ago, the guests were primarily homeless men. Today, they are the working poor – families in transition, unsupervised children, and elderly. Hunger and food insecurity threaten physical health, worker productivity, academic performance of children, mental health of both children and adults, and the burden on taxpayers to relieve long-term effects.
Another client, Family Tree Clinic, provides reproductive health care and family planning services. Their clients are largely uninsured or under-insured, and in the lowest brackets of annual income. Ignoring our society’s reproductive health would result in even higher rates of unintended pregnancies (50% are already reported as such in Minnesota); increased rates of sexually-transmitted infections; and, more teen pregnancies. Teenage pregnancies alone have a significant impact on the state's public assistance program, according to a 2008 Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting (MOAPPP) Adolescent Sexual Health Report for Ramsey County. In 2007, 54% of the total Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) cases were families that had begun with a teen birth. That investment translates into $2,701,799, or 56.8% of total MFIP dollars.
Another client, the Carver County Health Partnership, is convening community leaders to anticipate the impact of the expected population boom over the coming 15-20 years. The estimated 2006 population of 86,236 is expected to more than double by 2030. Households are expected to grow by nearly 50,000. With such explosive growth come challenges, like pollution due to motor vehicles and industrial sources, decreased social capital due to a lack of connectedness to community, increased crime, increased levels of stress, and new development that will increase the importance of accessibility to services, transportation considerations and public safety in development. Without a reasonable effort to strategically plan for this growth, communities will suffer from inattention to public health concerns and community development.
And yet another client, the Tufenkian Foundation, supports and implements a number of projects in the Republic of Armenia. Their work focuses on providing opportunities for impoverished youth, advocating for environmental protection, and developing economic opportunities in the most vulnerable parts of the country and Nagorno-Karabakh. The country lacks the ability to affordably export to other markets (two of the four borders are closed, leaving only Georgia and Iran as options for export by truck or train), putting the people in a precarious long-term situation.
Looking at just those four organizations, with four unique missions, it is clear that there is no simple definition for basic needs. Maslow's hierarchy of needs gives us some insight into it, but we must know that we need to look beyond the primitive needs of the pyramid. We need to be creative about fulfilling more of those needs, especially during an economic downturn. Otherwise, we can expect to live in an increasingly frustrated and cynical world. And that's not a place I want to live.