Just What Are Basic Needs in the 21st Century?

Andrew Wolk
Jul 1, 2019

The adjective basic describes something that forms an essential foundation; the noun need refers to something required. From this, we can cobble together a dictionary definition of basic needs, but thankfully, centuries of various writing even some legal decisions give us the means to state a more explicit, profound, and nearly perfect definition: those things necessary to sustain our lives.

Some dictionary definitions of basic also include starting point. You’ll see why that’s such an important element in a moment.

In my last blog post, I began to discuss the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), which I intend to write more about over this summer.

My motivation for exploring UBI is my growing realization that getting on and staying on the pathway to lifelong success what I’ve characterized as a healthy birth to entering school ready to learn, to a quality education, a well-paying job, and healthy and secure agingis first and foremost about making sure peoples basic needs are met.

One could even say that a basic need is a perpetual starting point in this sense: if I’m consistently hungry, for instance, it’s going to be pretty difficult to start going to school and learn. The UBI idea giving people some set amount of money is one way we might better ensure more and more people can meet basic needs on their own.

So, I feel it is critical to explore basic needs more deeply and attempt to agree on what they are today. Otherwise, I believe it will be impossible to realize population-level change and reduce disparities.

First, there are the things we cannot do without or we die: food, water, shelter, and clothing. This list is, obviously, the bare minimum. When I expand my thinking to include what we need to get on and stay on the pathway, the list grows. The pathway milestones are worth repeating: a healthy birth; entering school ready to learn; a quality education; a well-paying job; healthy and secure aging. So. I add transportation: we have to get to school and get to a job. I include healthcare, in whatever form that might take; being sick keeps us from going to school or holding down a job. I include some sort of childcare. For instance, some recipients of government family assistance are required to hold jobs, but can never do so because they have absolutely no resource for watching their kids. In other words, absent childcare, so many people find themselves stuck without the ability even to entertain taking a job, let alone keeping one.

If we don’t have food, water, shelter, and clothing, were going to die. If we don’t have transportation, healthcare, and childcare, we can’t be on a pathway to success. And we cant stay on that path unless these basic needs are met continuously; some people find themselves getting on, falling off, and getting on again, only to be at risk of yet again falling off.

Still, though, there are more: safety, sanitation, and education. And even beyond those, I also came up with a few others for consideration today, including mental healthcare, and senior care, and access to the internet?

One thing you may have noticed that is not among the basic needs I’ve listed is a job which is the most critical milestone on the pathway. A job fits into the discussion of the basic needs because for nearly everyone, a job is indispensable: it provides the income both to meet basic needs and move along the pathway. Heres my thinking today, which may change as I continue to wrestle with these questions. Today, there are essentially three ways to have our basic needs met: someone provides them to us (i.e., government); we earn enough to provide them for ourselves; or we inherit enough that we never have to worry about them (given that this describes only a tiny portion of the population, only the first two ways are relevant to this discussion). Our economic system is based on that middle one; we’re expected to find a way to provide the basic needs for ourselves that aren’t typically provided at the community level (such as schools and drinking water and so on).

Right now, too many people’s basic needs are not being met, and, therefore, too many people find themselves unable to get on and stay on the pathway to success.

The economic system in which people are expected to meet their needs completely on their own is not working for the vast majority of peopleand neither is todays system for helping people who cannot meet those needs on their own (the system Ive spent my career as part of). Both must go through radical transformation, and we cannot wait.

We need to get started right now rethinking not only which basic needs we meet as a society, but also how we meet those needs. Our society cannot afford to wait for piecemeal solutions, with an incremental change that takes decades or, worse yet, makes little to no progress.

As is probably clear by all this, the new social contract I am calling for has a lot of ground to cover. I wrote in one of my earliest blog posts of our need to agree on that social contract that I call our Common Purpose so we can all pull in the same mutually beneficial direction.

How do we make sure people’s basic needs are met so they can get on and stay on the pathway? Is UBI a potential way? In a growing system of inequality, what is the minimum the government should ensure if the economic system cannot, and how should they provide it? What can we agree to, as a society, regarding who gets all or some of these met by others? If we don’t settle on what constitutes basic needs, how can we answer these questions? If we go the UBI route, how do we figure out how much money to provide if we don’t have the answers?

So many questions; so few answers. I’m interested in exploring potential ways forward. I appreciate readers going along for that ride. In upcoming posts, Ill turn back to UBI, interviewing some of the leaders of UBI experiments taking place in different parts of the country and digging deeper to gain a better understanding of potential ways to meet basic needs. I don’t know where this exploration will lead, but in the meantime, I am sure of two things. First, all us doing working to improve lives in government, philanthropies, and nonprofits have to continue to ask ourselves the to-what-end question and reflect on how the work we do is contributing to an answer. Second, we need to figure this all out as a country. It’s not just a matter of morality; I firmly believe its also a matter of security for our nation and our future.

I’ll end this post with The Beatles’ lighthearted song All Together Now.

TO READ MORE about how one international organization thinks about basic needs, as an example, click here.