Needs, Wants, Dignity

This Is What Inequality Looks Like by Teo You Yenn

by Teo You Yenn

For the International Day for the Elimination of Poverty (Oct 17), read this exclusive release of the chapter ‘Needs, Wants, Dignity’ from the bestselling "This Is What Inequality Looks Like" by Teo You Yenn which explains how dignity—often overlooked in the formulation of policies—is a crucial part of life and what we need to rethink when we talk about improving policies.

Sketch by L, 2017.


Two boys in a family, ages 10 and 9, were invited by a social worker to participate in a program where they could make a wish for anything under S$90. A few months later, they would know if their wishes have been picked by a donor organization.

        I asked the social worker if all the wishes get fulfilled. He told me about some common problems. Donors insist on in-kind rather than cash gifts so sometimes gifts delivered are not exactly what the children asked for. Last year, a boy received a pink backpack that he didn’t really like (he had asked for purple). The wait for the wishes to be fulfilled is four long months; what they wanted when they made the request may no longer be as pressing by the time their requests are answered. About 80% of the requests get picked. That is, 20% do not, so some kids get left out in the end. This is tough since they were excited when asked what they wanted, and they see other kids receiving their gifts. Perhaps theirs were not seen as ‘worthy’ requests. Perhaps the stories written about them by social workers were not compelling enough. Perhaps their wishes were not seen as ‘needs’ but as ‘wants.’ 

        Wants are often needs.

That afternoon of my visit, the younger boy made his wish quickly. He was less tentative than his big brother about making his wish. “Soccer boots,” he said immediately. “All my friends have.” He plays soccer in school. His coach had asked him why he doesn’t have soccer boots. All his friends have them. We took a few minutes to figure out his size. His mother brought out a measuring tape to measure his foot. She also looked at the size of his current school shoes. There was discussion about when the shoes will be gifted and how to take into consideration his feet growing in the next months. We were after all discussing Christmas in August. The social worker asked what his favorite colors were and wrote down his preferences. After the flurry of activity, the boy added that he would like long socks. He also used his hands to gesture the shape of a specific type of bag to put the shoes in. It is clear that he was so specific because many of his friends in his soccer CCA already had all these things he was describing.

        The two boys took the opportunity very seriously, especially the older one. He smiled gently, excited by the prospect of making a wish. But he quickly turned pensive, thinking carefully, weighing various options. From where he was sitting, on the floor, he turned his face upward to look at his mother to make sure that his decision was the right one.

        She too was taking the opportunity very seriously. She wanted her children to be able to fulfill their wishes, but also wanted to make sure the gifts were practical—things that they need urgently and will use regularly. She first suggested something practical—swim trunks. The boy was unenthusiastic. He already has swim trunks, he mumbled softly. She suggested it because his younger brother doesn’t have proper ones, but the younger boy had used up his own wish quickly by asking for soccer boots. When she saw her older son’s reluctant expression and a tinge of disappointment, she backed down and let him decide for himself. He ended up wishing for badminton rackets because the ones they had were in bad condition.

        The mother’s desire for her children to have their wishes met is as strong as, if not stronger, than the children’s own desires. I have met many parents like her. They talk about buying nice things for their children when they can—backpacks of specific brands, water bottles in particular styles, special shoes for soccer. It is not any bag, any bottle, any shoes—it is specific ones that their children want. Parents will know: Moana and Hello Kitty are different; Spiderman and Pikachu are not interchangeable. A backpack is not just a backpack.

        Low-income parents talk about how sorry they feel when they cannot afford to buy things their children want. They talk about how they try to treat their kids when they have some extra cash, but how this cannot be a regular thing. They try to avoid walking through shopping centers so they don’t have to keep feeling a complex mix of frustration, guilt, and pity for their children.

        We all have things we desire—a book that just came out, a handsome wallet, a new pair of shoes, an updated phone. We all have things we need—a book that just came out, a handsome wallet, a new pair of shoes, an updated phone.

        We need that book because all our friends have it and have been talking endlessly about it. We have a wallet but it’s now old and a little embarrassing to bring out. We can’t wear the same shoes every day; we feel our colleagues would notice. Having an updated phone makes us feel like we’re moving with the times, not left behind.

What we frequently think of as wants, in specific contexts, are needs. They are, as the sociologist Allison Pugh’s work shows, dignity needs.1 They allow us to feel like we belong to the groups we care about, that we are rooted in, and that we need respect, acceptance and love from. As the title of Pugh’s book suggests—we long for things because we long to belong.

        Shoes, clothes, backpacks, pencil cases, stickers, water bottles, toys—many of these things are not just articles that have objective use-value. They enable children to participate in and belong to social groups. They are bridges to new friendships and ties to bind old ones. In all social settings—school, soccer practice, tuition, community outings—the objects kids have, which most others have, allow them to blend in, to not call attention to themselves, to be part of the group.

        Children from families with limited income, just as those from families with more income, feel the need to have what their friends have, to be able to participate just as their friends can. This includes the ‘right’ shoes, bags, toys, for a particular time and place. It often includes things that appear useless in the eyes of adults—fidget spinners, Pokémon cards, slime. I meet parents who want to fulfill these desires. To be able to please our children, to make them joyous, however fleeting, is an important part of being a good parent. Low-income parents cannot and do not expect to fulfill all their desires, but they recognize how important these things are to their children.

        Sometimes dignity comes in the form of a pair of yellow and white soccer boots.


1 Pugh (2009).


Pugh, Allison J. 2009. Longing and belonging: Parents, children, and consumer culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.