Measures of Material Hardship: Final Report. The Adult Well-Being Topical Module


The 1996 SIPP Adult Well-Being topical module evolved from earlier work by the SIPP Interagency Working Group (comprised of Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census Bureau, and Social Security Administration staff), which considered the development of a "well-being" topical module for inclusion on the 1991 and 1992 SIPP panels. For the purpose of developing this module, the Group adopted a broad definition of "well-being," which focused on assessing "quality of life," and developed a comprehensive collection of materials on how to assess the issue of well-being. They subsequently winnowed the list of topics for inclusion to:

  • Durable goods;
  • Housing conditions;
  • Crime conditions;
  • Neighborhood conditions;
  • Ability to meet expenses;
  • Help when in need;
  • Food adequacy;
  • Community services;
  • Food and clothing expenses;
  • Housing expenses;
  • Transportation expenses;
  • Health expenses; and
  • Minimum income (Kominski & Short, 1996).

The final set of questions on well-being included in the 1991 and 1992 SIPP was very similar to that used by Mayer and Jencks (1989) in their Chicago-based hardship survey (Bauman, 1998). In evaluating the SIPP well-being data, the Census Bureau found response levels of comparable value to other available data sources and low levels of nonresponse. Further, debriefings with field representatives showed that respondents had few problems with the topics covered in the module (Kominski & Short, 1996).

Bauman (1998) points out, however, that more work is necessary to understand the well-being measures included in the SIPP. While he shows that these measures have a strong relationship to poverty, other factors correlated with poverty (e.g., education, employment status), and undesirable outcomes (e.g., high school dropout), there are still limitations in our understanding of how these measures work. Specific questions feature ambiguities that may complicate their interpretation. Questions also may not reliably measure aspects of need over time. Lastly, there are issues with understanding how these measures work together to describe well-being.

Many material hardship studies have used data from the 1991/1992 and 1993 SIPP panels (e.g., Bauman, 1998; Beverly, 1999a; Federman et al., 1996; Rector et al., 1999; Short & Shea, 1995). The questions included in the 1996 Adult Well-Being Topical Module are very similar to the well-being questions included in the original 1991/1992 panels. (See Appendix B, Exhibit B.2 for a summary of questions included in the 1991/1992 and 1993 SIPP panels.) Specifically, the 1996 module includes batteries of questions on the following seven topics:

  • Durable goods;
  • Housing safety;
  • Neighborhood quality;
  • Crime;
  • Community Services;
  • Basic needs; and
  • Food security.

Of these, four are of particular interest for the study of material hardship: durable goods, housing safety, basic needs, and food security. (A complete list of the questions included in the Adult Well-Being Topical Module is included in Appendix C.)

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