Measures of Material Hardship: Final Report. Description of Studies Included in Review


Nine studies were included in our review of material hardship indexes. These studies were selected because they: 1) measure multiple aspects of material hardship; and, 2) construct a hardship or deprivation index to describe household or families' material well-being. (Exhibit 3.1)

Six of the studies use SIPP data in their analysis: Bauman (1998); Beverly (1999); Federman et al. (1996); Lerman (2002); Rector et al. (1999); and Short and Shea (1995). The SIPP is a nationally representative survey sponsored by the US Census Bureau that collects a wide variety of economic and demographic information on panels of respondents over a period of several years, contacting sample members every four months. All but one of these studies used data from the 1991/1992 and 1993 SIPP panels; Lerman, (2002a) used the 1996 panel. Data were primarily drawn from three of the SIPP's topical modules  Extended Measures of Well-Being, Basic Needs, and Adult Well-Being topical modules; the module selected depends on which SIPP panel was used to construct the hardship index. (A more detailed description of the SIPP and its topical modules is provided in Chapter 4.)

The other three studies  Danziger et al. (2000), Edin and Lein (1997), and Mayer and Jencks (1989  use data from surveys with targeted populations. Danziger et al. (2000) use the Women's Employment Survey (WES), which was conducted in 1997 and 1998 with a random sample of single mothers who were welfare recipients in an urban Michigan county during 1997. Mayer and Jencks (1989) use a Chicago-based material hardship survey (conducted during Fall 1983 and Spring 1985). Edin and Lein (1997) collect data during qualitative interviews with low-income single mothers for a range of questions that were derived from Mayer and Jencks' (1989) Chicago-based survey.

The first column of Exhibit 3.1 summarizes the different approaches these studies used to define material hardship. Among the studies, researchers primarily define material hardship in terms of direct measures of hardship experiences or actual living conditions (Bauman, 1998; Danziger, Corcoran, Danziger, & Heflin, 2000; Edin & Lein, 1997; Federman et al., 1996; Lerman, 2002; 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 define hardship actually focus on household experiences and living conditions (e.g., food insufficiency, housing quality) rather than consumption.

All of the selected studies use a hardship index to describe households' experiences. While each of the measures included in these indexes reflects a hardship, examining only one living condition at a time may underestimate the extent to which families forego other basic needs (Federman et al., 1996). For example, households with limited resources may make trade-offs among basic needs (e.g., food vs. needed medical care) or choose different allocations of goods and services to make ends meet (Edin & Lein, 1997). Moreover, indexes also may capture important information about the severity of a household's living conditions. Here, the notion is that families' hardship experience increases if a household suffers from multiple problems rather than a single condition (Rector et al., 1999).

For the most part, researchers have constructed unweighted indexes, which count each hardship experience equally  that is, no one hardship is considered worse than another. However, it is important to note that such unit-weighted indexes often include multiple measures of the same construct (e.g., multiple measures of a families' ability to meet its basic needs). To the extent that these questions actually measure the same construct the index may, in fact, be "weighted" more heavily toward certain types of hardship by virtue of the fact more than one measure captures certain aspects of hardship.

Four researchers use weighted indexes, which assign different weights according to the relative importance of specific hardship experiences. Lerman (2002a) uses a priori judgments regarding the relative severity of specific conditions. Edin and Lein (1997) and Mayer and Jencks (1989) weight specific hardship experiences according to their correlation with respondents' satisfaction with living conditions.(4) In contrast, Rector et al. (1999) define three levels of hardship:

  • Threshold indicators, or questions that cover financial rather than material difficulties;
  • Moderate material problems (i.e., having gas, electricity or oil cut off for non-payment during the last year; having phone service cut off for nonpayment during the year; moderate crowding; having three or four housing upkeep problems; not having a stove or refrigerator; occasional hunger; and unmet medical need in instances where a household does not have health insurance); and
  • Substantial material problems (i.e., eviction during prior year; substantial crowding; five or more housing upkeep problems; frequent hunger).

Households are identified as experiencing hardship if they have one or more substantial material problems or three or more moderate material problems, and a household income less than 200% FPL.

With a few exceptions (i.e., Edin & Lein, 1997; Mirowsky & Ross, 1999; Rector et al., 1999), households are defined as experiencing material hardship if they have at least one hardship condition. The conditions measured are presumed to be relatively rare in the general population, predominantly occurring among low-income households, and reflect households' inability to meet their basic needs (Beverly, 1999). Households that experience more severe hardship circumstances are identified by the presence of more than one condition (e.g., two or more, etc.).

All of the indexes examined here define material hardship in terms of three of basic needs: food insecurity, housing insecurity, and the inability to afford basic utilities such as gas, electricity, or a telephone. (Exhibit 3.1) All but two of the studies (i.e., Federman et al., 1996; Lerman, 2002) also include measures of unmet medical need as an indicator of a family's ability to meet its basic needs. In addition to these basic needs indicators, some of the studies include three other types of indicators in their definition of material hardship: housing safety, housing overcrowding, and the presence of essential durable goods in a household (i.e., stove and refrigerator). Only Short and Shea's (1995) material hardship definition includes measures of the amount of outside assistance available to a household (i.e., households that do not have access to a certain level of outside assistance are considered deprived).

In the following sections, we review the basic needs and other measures that have been used in the nine hardship indexes, highlighting the similarities and differences among the constructs used.


Exhibit 3.1
Summary of Material Hardship Studies
  Types of Indicators Included in Index
Basic Needs and Food Insecurity Indicators Other Indicators
Author Approach Used to Describe Hardship Index is Unweighted (U) or Weighted (W) Index Threshold Data Source Food Insecurity Housing Insecurity Basic Utilities Unmet Medical/
No Insurance
Housing- Quality Housing- Crowding Durable Goods
Bauman (1998) Uses direct measures of economic well being to keep track of how people are getting by U One or more hardships SIPP (1992/93) X X X X      
Beverly (1999a) Inadequate consumption of very basic good and services such as food, housing, clothing, and medical care. U One or more hardships SIPP (1992/93) X X X X X    
Danziger et al. (2000) Recent experiences of material hardship and financial strain U One or two hardship conditions WES X X X X*      
Edin & Lein (1997) Items that virtually every American would consider necessities; Living conditions below a standard most Americans would consider adequate U/W No threshold; reported average number of hardships for families in each site In-person interviews with single mothers X X X X* X    
Federman et al. (1996) Summarizes living conditions of individuals living in poor and non-poor families U More than one deprivation SIPP (1992) X X X   X X X
Lerman (2002a) General and specific problems in making ends meet as well as the availability of outside help to meet basic needs W One or more hardships SIPP (1996) X X X     X  
Mayer & Jencks (1989) Uses direct measures to examine severity of household's hardship experiences U/W One or more hardships Chicago-based Material Hardship Survey X X X X* X X  
Rector et al. (1999) Actual material living conditions U Must meet conditions set in the Overall Material Hardship Index SIPP (1992) X X X X X X X
Short & Shea (1995) Inability to meet basic needs U One or more deprivations SIPP (1992) X X X X      
Total Number of Studies Including a Specific Type of Hardship in Their Index 9 9 9 7 5 4 2
* Include measures of unmet medical need and whether household members have health insurance.

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