"Instead of a random act of kindness try a conscious act of compassion" (Invisible People)
Updated: Jul 25
This quote stuck with me from watching the videos on the Invisible People YouTube Channel which puts names, faces, and lives to those living on the streets. And while it's not much, today I looked up my local food bank, did a deliberate shop for the things on the list (including feminine hygiene products and toilet paper which cost what they cost, I managed a bag of cereal, biscuits, and tinned veg for just over £12), and in looking up the delivery points, I realised there was one within walking distance which I can donate to regularly. But, the thing is, it didn't make me feel happy and righteous...it made me sad that this is what is happening, still...and of course grateful because (and this phrase is one I've heard far too much lately in my understanding of the poverty crisis)...there, but for the grace of God go I.
Amongst the collaborations I am delighted to be invited to contribute to as a psychologist and writer, is a recent one with a fintech (a financial software company) focused on helping us manage our spending...because, as I've observed in my books and recent articles - financial health seems to remain a (literal) poor relation of wellbeing. Yet, it turns out Mental Health and Financial Health are not always mutually exclusive.
The continued relevance of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Most psychology students are familiar with Maslow's 1943/1950 Hierarchy of Needs as an explanation for human motivation. We are first driven by the need for our physiological needs to be met, followed by safety, and then the emotional needs of a sense of love and belonging, mental needs of self-esteem, and the spiritual connection of self-actualisation. Revisions of the hierarchy leave the lower rungs intact, but adds "mate acquisition" and parenting to the top (removing self-actualisation...note that Maslow himself considered "transcendence" as another motivation in his own revisions), and since that point businesses have used the hierarchy as a template for organisational hybrid models eg:
-> Working Equipment -> Security -> Safety/hygiene -> Team culture -> Career success (Levene, 2021)
and even positive psychology - my favourite school of thought has proposed a "hierarchy of human flourishing":
-> Security -> Communion/Agency ->Self transcendence/Growth/Self Development -> human flourishing
...and certainly I have always believed my focus to be on the flourishing side of wellbeing, with tools to move you mentally and emotionally from OK to thriving.
I still believe in my work in that aspect - there are many more qualified than I to bring you through therapeutic intervention from Not OK to OK, and sometimes, you really only need a nudge to get back on track...I always think although talking therapy isn't for everyone, being well is.
This overlooks one major aspect of wellbeing - it presumes a level of physiological and security needs being met. This is NOT the case. In 2021, we cannot yet assume everyone has achieved the bottom rung of human need.
Some facts surrounding poverty (from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation)
-There are 3 levels of poverty
a) Income below minimum income standard (which makes it very difficult to manage the unexpected)
b) Not enough income (falling short of a decent standard of living)
c) Destitute (not being able to afford to eat, keep clean, stay warm and dry)
-The measurements in place can still disguise the true extent of the problem
Financial health is currently measured by a "Minimum Income Standard"; Relative Income (currently set at less than 60% contemporary median income); Absolute Income (less than 60% contemporary median income uprated by inflation); Material Deprivation (not being able to afford essential items); Destitution (not being about to afford shelter, or heating)
-While mental and emotional health will suffer because of poor financial health - they are NOT necessarily the cause of it
The JRF identify the following as causes of poverty:
- Unemployment and low job prospects
- Low levels of skill/education
- An ineffective benefit system (which CAN include clerical and administrative errors as well as issues with the way the system itself is set up)
- High (and growing) costs of living
- Discrimination restricting access to jobs and services
- Impact on children of poor developmental relationships or trauma/abuse
While a common narrative tells a tale that poverty is because of mental ill health and substance abuse - this is not the main cause...although it is arguably a certain consequence. For some with jobs pre-pandemic, it did not take long before a reduced income leading to mortgage and rent arears put them in a position they never expected to be in. With the gig-economy and zero hours contracts ever more popular, even the rung of security isn't necessarily accessible to all.
As a damning news report suggested 'If you don't have mental health issues, try being homeless' (Channel 4).
Financial Health must be as high a priority as mental and emotional health when it comes to wellbeing
...although one might ask, in the midst of a "mental health crisis" - how much are the latter two being prioritised?
Nonetheless, as I have said in a previous article - if you are unable to think beyond surviving what good is it to talk about thriving?
Do you know your average income and expenditure? (including credit cards, loans etc)
Do you have savings/insurance to rely on should there be any unexpected change in income?
Are you prepared for your future retirement?
Sadly, in some cases even this is not enough. The Global Pandemic threw even the most robust businesses into uncertainty, although the support offered from the government was admirable, given the circumstances, and as I have also said in previous articles - sometimes it is systemic change that is needed to really make a difference, rather than simply the individual developing their own skills.
The bitter panacea of Universal Credit
When Universal Credit was legislated for via the Welfare Reform Act 2012, it's aim was to simply the benefit system by rolling the various support credits offered (Income/Jobseeker Allowance, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax credit, Housing Benefit) into one payment - paid in arrears like a salary which in turn would help those receiving support more ownership over their money and thus skills when it came to budgeting.
Without even going into the horror stories in the initial stages of the roll out caused not just by administrative and clerical delays and errors sometimes pushing people who weren't in debt into a financial quicksand, a simple understanding of human nature wasn't forthcoming. In much of the public narrative there was talk of "neighbours from hell" and an abuse of the system. I am not so naive to think that some abuse doesn't happen...it will in every single situation one can think of. But it is not necessarily the norm. More often than not, at least anecdotally in my experience, if seeking help for mental ill health is anything to go by - many people (whether down to pride or fear of stigma, or simply not knowing where to turn) wait until the point of crisis...and with the resilient survival instinct in many...that's often a lot further down the road than one would care to think.
While gremlins in the system have been addressed since 2012 - clearly there is still much more to be done - and, when people continue to fall through cracks, or are told "have a baby"(Britain's Hidden Hungry, 2012) , or "you've survived this long, you can go a bit longer" (Sky News, 2018) perhaps even this system - or some running it - is/are not fit for purpose.
So what now?
Unlike my other articles I'm at a loss as to what to suggest. I know I contribute where I can with donations and fundraising, and this article in part is simply about raising awareness that not everyone is in a position to thrive, so maybe I come back to the very first point raised by Invisible People...if you are inspired by this at all, then today, please do one single deliberate, conscious act of compassion - whether this is for yourself (eg. checking those loans, paying those bills...hell - maybe it's even OPENING those letters); or for someone else especially when it comes to protecting financial health...which in a commodified society is a basic physiological need that not all of us have.
If you are an organisation - please consider this stark reality of 2021 UK, in your CSR work
The Government/Policy Makers - where are we on expanding and promoting the "Good Samaritan Act (or SARaH Bill)" which other countries have already introduced?
...perhaps THAT's how Maslow can be modified...recognition that hunter gatherers are now creditors and debtors.
Please stay "fit for purpose" when donating:
- Check what resources Food Banks or Shelters need (my local food bank has an excess of beans and pasta, but requests biscuits, tinned veg, cereal as well as hygiene products)
- Be mindful of the needs of the service user - the elderly may not have the dexterity for tin openers; sometimes low sugar options can be helpful if a service user has diabetes
- When it comes to clothing, toys and similar, donate NOT what you don't want...but the things you love/have loved and used yourself if you can...because it is more likely those things will be loved and used by service users.
And before passing judgment, don't forget, when it comes to welfare - which includes our NHS - WE are service users too.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt