Measures of Material Hardship: Final Report. Deprivation Poverty Measures


In contrast, Ringen (1995) defines deprivation poverty "in relation to how [people] in fact live" and "as a standard of consumption which is below what is generally considered to be decent minimum" (p. 354). Similarly, Sen (1979) noted that poverty might be identified through either income or direct approaches, where direct measures describe the extent to which people meet their needs after having made use of the resources at their disposal. The direct approach and income methods result in two alternative concepts of poverty, not two ways of measuring the same thing (Sen, 1981, in Short, 2003). Both consumption and material hardship measures, which focus on the goods and services consumed, are examples of direct measures. While poverty and deprivation are related concepts, a person could suffer from either poverty or deprivation alone. For example, a person lacking income could be well fed and housed through in-kind donations, while a person with regular income could be poorly fed and have inadequate shelter due to their inability to manage a budget.

Deprivation poverty measures and the use of direct measures have received considerably more attention by researchers in Europe and Great Britain than US researchers. As discussed below, European definitions of deprivation poverty generally represent a broader concept (i.e., social deprivation) than the American emphasis on material hardship. Also, more of the European measures have been grounded in socially-defined needs (e.g., some measures have been based on national survey data that identify what the public considers to be necessities).

Social Deprivation

European measures of social deprivation include social necessities as well as physical necessities (Fisher, 2001; Short, 2003). This general definition of deprivation was strongly influenced by the work of Townsend (1979), who created an index of 12 indicators of "deprivation," which included 6 items related to physical necessities (e.g., household without refrigerator; gone without a cooked meal for one or more days within the past two weeks) and 6 items related to social activities (e.g., a one week holiday away from home in the last 12 months; a relative or friend to the home for a meal; child's friends over to play). Conceptually, Townsend defined poverty in terms of relative deprivation, where families "can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources tohave the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged or approved" (p. 31, in Fisher, 2001).

Mack and Lansley (1985) built on Townsend's work in the Breadline Britain survey. Here, they defined poverty as "an enforced lack of socially perceived necessities" (p. 45). As was the case with Townsend, their necessities included both personal consumption items and social activities. Their definition, however, differed from Townsend's work in two important ways (Fisher, 2001; Short, 2003). First, they chose indicators of deprivation that were based on a national survey that asked respondents to classify a series of items as necessities or non-necessities. Second, they asked survey respondents who reported that they did not have a specific item whether this was because it was something they did not want or it was something they wanted, but could not afford.

Fisher (2001) applies the term "consensual deprivation indicator" to Mack and Lansley's approach, given its grounding in socially defined need. This approach has subsequently been used in surveys conducted in other European countries. For example, the work of Irish researchers (e.g., Callahan, Nolan, and Whelan, 1993) examines households that experience basic deprivation using indicators drawn from Mack and Lansley's initial work and fall below specific income thresholds.

Measures of Material Hardship

US measures of material hardship are narrower in focus than European measures of social deprivation. Generally speaking, material hardship measures only look at material needs and consumption items, which are closely equated with physical necessities (Fisher, 2001). As noted by Exhibit 2.1, most domestic material hardship studies use direct measures of hardship experiences or actual living conditions (Bauman, 1998; Danziger et al, 2000; Edin & Lein, 1997; Federman et al., 1996; Lerman, 2002a; Mayer & Jencks, 1989; Rector et al., 1999; Short & Shea, 1995). Although Beverly (1999a) defines hardship as, "inadequate consumption of very basic goods and services," the measures used to describe hardship actually focus on household experiences and living conditions (e.g., food insufficiency, housing quality), rather than consumption in relationship to need.

Despite their common focus on actual living conditions and physical needs, researchers conducting material hardship research in the US have struggled with establishing a common definition of material need. Unlike the consensual deprivation indicator approach, items included in these studies have been selected by researchers and have not been validated by social surveys where the general population identified which items constitute necessities and which do not. That said, researchers such as Mayer and Jencks (1989) and Beverly (1999a) have grounded their selection of measures in the policy literature and have chosen items that are directly linked to domestic social policy initiatives such as housing, food, and income support programs. That said, participants at the Roundtable Meeting agreed that material hardship is not a "neutral social scientific term." As a result, material hardship may mean different things to different people.

Similar to European measures of social deprivation, however, most domestic studies use an index with a specified threshold to identify households that experience hardship. In many cases this index also is compared to the official poverty threshold or other income-based poverty measures. This is usually to offer alternative estimates of those in need to poverty estimates promulgated using the official poverty measure or to show how different types of households can be identified using different measures.

Exhibit 2.1
Definitions Used to Describe Material Hardship in US Research
Author Definitions
Bauman (1998) Uses direct measures of economic well being to keep track of how people are getting by
Beverly (1999a) Inadequate consumption of very basic good and services such as food, housing, clothing, and medical care.
Danziger et al. (2000) Recent experiences of material hardship and financial strain
Edin & Lein (1997) Items that virtually every American would consider necessities; Living conditions below a standard most Americans would consider adequate
Federman et al. (1996) Summarizes living conditions of individuals living in poor and non-poor families
Lerman (2002a) General and specific problems in making ends meet as well as the availability of outside help to meet basic needs
Mayer & Jencks (1989) Uses direct measures to examine severity of household's hardship experiences
Rector et al. (1999) Actual material living conditions
Short & Shea (1995) Inability to meet basic needs

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