Introduction: Maslow and the Theory of Human Motivation

The socio-economic level of the citizenry is a determining factor in the access to the resources and services that allow them to satisfy their needs. The theory of human motivation developed by renowned U.S. psychologist Abraham Maslow in Motivation and Personality (1954) describes a hierarchy of needs and the motivations that human beings have to satisfy to survive and that, once fulfilled, lead them to have new needs to fulfill. The theory states that if some of the needs of the first stages or levels of the hierarchy are not met, the individual cannot aspire to fulfill the higher needs.

Although the theory of human motivation does not take into consideration socio-cultural differences, the needs of the first levels apply to any society. Regardless of the society being examined, individuals have to feed themselves, find shelter, health and security to be able to achieve an internal equilibrium and aspire to any other need or satisfaction they want to achieve.

Maslow presents the hierarchy of needs in the form of a pyramid. The pyramid is divided into five levels and its foundation is the physiological needs. The first stage or level begins with breathing, eating, rest and the equilibrium of the organism. In the second level of the pyramid are needs related to security. This level consists of needs for employment, physical security, resources, morals, family, health and property. These first two levels which can be classified as human needs are closely related to access to the resources that allow the human being to acquire what is needed to survive. The starting point is meeting the basic needs such as food, water, rest, health, and security.

According to Maslow’s principles, the human being cannot aspire to satisfy needs for belonging, recognition and self-actualization needs found on the upper levels of the hierarchy —while lacking the basic needs of the lower levels. Conceptually, individuals cannot enjoy healthy relationships which are part of the third level of the pyramid of needs— while suffering from hunger, lacking access to resources that allow them to responsibly care for their health or do not have a roof to live and sleep under: needs on the lower levels.

Poverty in Puerto Rico

The lack of the means to satisfy the basic needs of the population of Puerto Rico is a persistent social problem. According to data provided by the Puerto Rico Census Office and published by the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics, in 2015, 46% of the population was living below the poverty level. In terms of households, the data reveal that 43% of families were poor. Of all the households classified as below the poverty level, 60% had a woman as head of household.

The income disparity between genders can be seen in single-parent households. The annual income of households headed by a single mother is $9,007, while in households headed by a single father the number increases to $15,097.

The economic condition of Puerto Ricans has gotten even worse due to the hurricanes Irma and María that hit the island in September of 2017. According to the Informe sobre desarrollo humano en Puerto Rico 2016 published by the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics, it is believed that 59.8% of the island population lives below the poverty level. The study revealed that the population between 0 and 17 years of age and living below the poverty level makes up 57% of the total population. According to the wellness index of the Institute for Youth Development, 473,611 minors (57%) lived in poverty in Puerto Rico in 2016. Of those, 62% were under five years of age. In terms of the municipalities, there were some towns where minors living in poverty reached 82%, such as Maricao. These statistics show that Puerto Rican children are the most vulnerable and marginalized sector of society.

The Causes and Effects of Poverty in Puerto Rico

The Mexican academic Julio Boltvinik wrote in his article “Concepts and Measurements of Poverty. The Need for a Broader View” that: The existence of poverty is an aberration in social life, an obvious sign that society is working poorly” (9). When evaluating the poverty present in a society, it is essential to analyze the numerous factors that cause and increase the part of the population living under these conditions.

The economic recession Puerto Rico has experienced since 2006 was further aggravated by Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017. In fact, the impact of the hurricanes has revealed the economic reality of the island and helps worsen the conditions of poverty and marginalization.

Two factors that have contributed to the poverty of the island are the increase in the unemployment rate and the decrease in the labor participation rate. In Puerto Rico, since the end of the 20th century, less than 40% of the population age 16 or older and able to work has a paying job. In many cases, the lower labor participation is a result of a scarcity of jobs, as well as the low pay for part-time service jobs, which do not provide a sufficient income for a nuclear family, such as four people, for example. As a result, the population resorts to debt to cover expenses of the nuclear family. The need to pay off these obligations forces individuals to commit their salaries to these commitments, which are more than their income can support.

The increase in poverty levels affects the individual’s capacity not only to obtain sufficient income, but also self-esteem, which is an essential element for the person’s ability to be able to satisfy their own basic needs. In many Puerto Rican homes, the head of household has two or three jobs to meet the basic needs such as food, water, rest, health and security. The physical and emotional drain affects many minors as they do not receive the necessary attention from their parents, who have had to turn to this way of life to be able to cover their necessities and those of their family. These children will grow up and repeat their parents’ patterns of behavior in a vicious circle of scarcity and reproduce the conditions that contribute to poverty.

Other consequences of the increased poverty in the Puerto Rican population include increased cases of domestic violence, homicides, suicides, and robbery. People are more vulnerable and their mental and emotional health break down with the deterioration of their quality of life as a result of scarcity.

Efforts that Should be Considered to Eliminate Poverty

All governments should make it a priority to address the problem and the causes of increased poverty in their populations. The serious economic problem of Puerto Rico’s national debt contributes to the increase in the unemployment rate and emigration. As a result, the state’s revenues from income taxes decrease, which in turn reduces the quality and quantity of services received by the most vulnerable population: children and adults who live below the poverty level.

The process of recovery from Hurricanes Irma and María has been slower than anticipated, which has worsened the precarious condition of nearly 50% of the Puerto Rican population. As a result, it is essential to reconsider the strategies that contribute to mitigating the economic challenges that face Puerto Rico. The government must direct its efforts at creating sources of sustainable economic development that lead to the creation of jobs and self-sufficiency. At the same time, efforts to combat poverty could come from community development with the help of the non-profit sector of the economy, known as the third sector or the social economy. This third sector consists of entities that are not in the public sector and are not for profit, such as non-governmental agencies, cooperatives, foundations, etc.


To ensure a peaceful and healthy coexistence in any society, it is necessary for governments and citizens to prioritize the satisfaction of basic needs for all. Under Maslow’s theory, if citizens’ basic needs are not met, they will have less capacity to meet their own needs and the needs of those who depend on them, which has a negative effect on their ability to productively contribute to their own futures or to that of society. The less capable a society is at meeting these needs, the greater will be the poverty, not only in terms of income, but also in the productivity, health and safety of its members. On the other hand, the more successful a society is at helping its citizens scale Maslow’s pyramid of needs, the more capable the society will be of reducing or even eliminating— poverty and maximizing its internal resources for the good of society in general.




Boltvinik, Julio. "Concepts and Measurements of Poverty. The Need for a Broader View.” Papeles de población, vol. 9 no. 38, oct.-dic. 2003, pp. 9-25,,

Informe sobre desarrollo humano en Puerto Rico 2016. Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics, 2018,

La emigración neta se mantiene en su punto más alto en once años. Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics, 15 Sept. 2016.


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