It’s said that the average human makes about 35,000 choices a day. Right now, parents all over the world are making decisions, some more difficult than others. While choices are not reserved for one specific class or socioeconomic group, economics will often define the kinds of choices we have to make, and can determine decision-making patterns.

Impossible choices

Parents of families in poverty, both domestic and international, are faced with the kinds of decisions no one wants to make. In the most extreme cases, it can be a choice between feeding their children and giving them an education, or between buying new medication and paying bills on time, if at all.

While many parents are determining how to save for a college education for their kids, that may not be an option for those who live below the poverty line, living paycheck to paycheck. Putting money away for distant possibilities can’t be justified when in the moment, a child is hungry. In some countries, where even primary education comes at a cost for parents, children may never go to school at all.

These parents aren’t just deciphering between wants and needs — they often have to assess which need takes top priority.

“For families living in poverty, sacrifices are made to meet a child’s most basic needs.”

The hierarchy of needs

It is human nature to respond to needs according to a common hierarchy. The most basic physiological needs to survive, such as food, water, and breathing, are the first to get our attention and resources. The next is safety, followed by love and belonging, esteem and finally self-actualization. The latter needs can only be considered if the former have been met. 

For families living in poverty, sacrifices are made to meet a child’s most basic needs. The highest priority for a parent will always be meeting immediate physical needs, and until those are in place, other options cannot even be considered. But what if the physical needs overwhelm the ability to provide? What if both food and medicine are required, but there is only enough for one or the other? It is an impossible and all-too-real scenario with no easy answer.

Sharing their burden

Behind every decision is a story. In Los Angeles, a couple wonders how they will feed their 5-year-old daughter when medicals bills are mounting from the father’s two bouts of cancer and a massive stroke. In the Philippines, two brothers, under the age of 16, miss school to care for their younger siblings so their parents can go to work. In Belarus, a widow must stay home to care for her sick daughter, which means they have no income. In Zambia, a woman whose husband abandoned her family cannot realize the dream of sending her son to college. He graduated at the top of his high school class, but she is unable to sell enough goods at the outdoor market to provide even the basic necessity of food for her children.

The decision for us may not be whether we will pay our bills or feed our children, but we can make the decision not to look away from those who find themselves in that situation. We can choose to know their stories, we can decide to help with childcare, or we can provide nutritious food. In so choosing, we can bring hope to the suffering.