Measures of Material Hardship: Final Report. Chapter 1: Introduction


Researchers have increasingly used measures of material hardship to examine the well-being of low-income families, especially in the context of welfare reform. These measures generally employ direct indicators of consumption and physical living conditions to examine whether families are meeting certain basic needs. In many cases, material hardship measures have been used to supplement more traditional income-based poverty measures, such as household income and the federal poverty level. In recent years, material hardship measures have appeared in a wide range of surveys and studies, including the U.S. Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), recent studies of welfare leavers, the Project on Devolution and Urban Change, the National Survey of American Families (NSAF), and the Women's Employment Survey (WES).

In light of increased interest in material hardship measurement, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) developed a project to advance the study of material hardship. ASPE recognized that, while measuring material hardship has considerable value and policy relevance, researchers and policymakers also face methodological challenges in developing and using material hardship measures. For example, there is a lack of consensus on which hardships should be measured and whether and how they might be combined into an overall index of material hardship. Additionally, researchers are still evaluating the validity of hardship measures that are currently being used and how these measures compare to more traditional economic measures of income and poverty.

During the project's first phase, ASPE and Abt Associates Inc. held working group meetings with federal researchers from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to plan the project's one-day Roundtable Meeting on Measuring Material Hardship (Roundtable Meeting). The Roundtable Meeting's goals were to:

  1. Assess "where we are" in our understanding and measurement of material hardship;
  2. Determine the extent to which there is agreement as to what we measure when we examine material hardship and how it should be measured; and
  3. Identify what guidance can be provided, in the form of possible "next steps," to further develop material hardship measures.

On February 20, 2002, over 35 researchers and experts from both inside and outside the government attended ASPE's Roundtable Meeting on Measuring Material Hardship. The Roundtable Meeting's morning discussion session focused on identifying the underlying constructs of material hardship and criteria for developing material hardship measures. Meeting participants' also grappled with the issue of analytical strategies that might be used to develop a composite measure of material hardship. During the afternoon session, meeting participants discussed the key dimensions of hardship (e.g., food insecurity, shelter, and access to health care) and examined concrete measures in the areas of housing and health. The Roundtable Meeting concluded with a discussion of "next steps" for furthering our understanding of material hardship measurement, generally, and for the project, more specifically. A summary of the meeting's proceedings is provided as Appendix A.

The Measures of Material Hardship project's second phase was to write this report, which provides further background on the issues discussed at the Roundtable Meeting. The goal of this report is to advance the study of material hardship measurement by summarizing information about material hardship and its application to research with low-income families and children. Specifically, the report:

  • Discusses the ways in which material hardship has been conceptualized and operationalized by researchers;
  • Highlights where there is consensus and differences across material hardship definitions and measurement approaches;
  • Summarizes what we know about some of the material hardship measures that have been used to date in domestic research;
  • Identifies the strengths and weaknesses of different measurement approaches and strategies that might be used to combine material hardship measures into composite scales and indexes; and
  • Presents new analyses of the SIPP for the purpose of furthering our understanding of material hardship measurement among families and children.

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