Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Trevor Hancock: Policies should focus on basic needs

If governments were to put human development at the centre of their policies, how might things change? A good place to start is with Maslow’s Hierarchy.

If governments were to put human development at the centre of their policies, how might things change? A good place to start is with Maslow’s Hierarchy. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow described his hierarchy of developmental needs in the mid-20th century.

Our most basic needs are physiological — air, water, food, shelter and clothing — followed by safety, belongingness and love, esteem, self-actualization and self-transcendence. Without meeting basic physiological needs, we cannot survive. So the first responsibility of governments is to ensure everyone’s basic needs are met.

Many of our basic needs are enshrined in the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Article 25 states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing.” Note that the word is “everyone,” not some, most or nearly everyone.

The federal government in particular, as a signator of the UN declaration, is obligated to ensure that Canada meets these internationally recognized rights. In a country as rich as Canada, nobody should be lacking these most basic needs. We should all have clean air and water, and nobody should be hungry or without shelter or adequate clothing. Yet we all know this is not the case; our governments, especially our federal and provincial governments, are failing us.

A recent report from the food-security research project PROOF, based at the University of Toronto, noted that “in 2012, four million individuals in Canada, including 1.15 million children, experienced some level of food insecurity. This represents nearly 13 per cent of Canadian households.”

Moreover, they noted that the rates in half the provinces, including B.C. (where the rate was one in eight households), “were the highest rates observed yet in these provinces and territories.”

Not surprisingly, Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, in his 2012 report on food security in Canada, stated: “These rates of food insecurity are unacceptable, and it is time for Canada to adopt a national right-to-food strategy.” But neither the federal nor the provincial governments have committed to eliminating hunger and food insecurity.

In fact, they have largely left it to the charitable sector, which does a remarkable job. So much so, in fact, that the very success of this sector has let governments off the hook. But rather than tacitly supporting the charitable food system, the governments’ objective should be to eliminate this system by eliminating hunger and food insecurity.

As to ensuring proper housing for all, a recent report from the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, based at York University, notes that nearly one in five households are experiencing extreme housing affordability problems, while more than 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness in a year.

In large part, this is because successive federal governments have cut investments in housing by almost half in the past 25 years. As a result, insufficient social housing is being built. In 1982, more than 20,000 new social housing units were being built each year, but by 2006 this was down to fewer than 4,400 units.

The report estimates that 100,000 affordable housing units have not been built due to these funding cuts. It also estimates that additional spending of a mere 88 cents per person per week would result in more than 88,000 new units of social and affordable housing over a decade.

A wise government would recognize that ensuring that everyone’s basic needs for food and shelter are met is a sound economic investment in human development. Kids who grow up hungry and lacking good housing will do poorly in school and will grow up to perpetuate the cycle of poverty. We will lose the human potential they represent.

Is this the Canada we want to live in, a country that, in spite of its immense wealth, leaves vast numbers of children and adults hungry and inadequately housed or homeless? Are these the governments we should be electing? Or should we elect governments that will commit to meeting the basic human needs of everyone, and provide a clear plan to do so? Because a government that cannot feed and shelter its own citizens is not worthy of our support.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.