Measures of Material Hardship: Final Report. Identifying Underlying Constructs of Needs


As part of the preparation for the Roundtable Meeting, Bauman (2002b) proposed a framework that describes how consumption and needs relate to overall family economic functioning. The framework extends a basic "means" and "ends" dichotomy to include four stages: 1) inputs, or resources such as income, assets, public goods; 2) technology, such as the ability to manage resources wisely, as well as other abilities and skills, including coping mechanisms; 3) consumption and needs, which considers consumption relative to needs; and 4) outcomes, which includes both short- and long-term outcomes.

In measuring material hardship, the primary interest is in assessing people's actual material living conditions, and not how they come by these conditions. Thus, constructs that capture information about the resources available to people or their ability to use resources to meet their material needs are not a good fit. For example, questions that ask whether people have enough money to pay bills or have health insurance assess the means people have at their disposal to meet their material needs, rather than indicating whether the material need itself has been met.

At the first level of consumption are those basic needs, or necessities, such as "food, clothing and shelter" (Bauman, 2002b). Beyond that, there are the other basic items that people need to function in society (e.g., clothing that meets acceptable social standards). In general, the strategy of assessing consumption relative to need is the same for various types of needs. It requires: 1) setting a standard or need (e.g., caloric intake); 2) measuring actual consumption; and 3) comparing it to this standard.

Alternatively, we can assess the degree to which people have met their material needs by looking at short- and long-term outcomes. Short-term outcomes could be material comforts or the degree to which basic needs are met, such as food insecurity and housing quality measures. Long-term outcomes could be lasting malnutrition or unemployment that can result from sustained material need over time. In either case, what is being measured is whether the desired outcome has been met.

Thus, two practical strategies for measuring material need or hardship can be drawn from the consideration of Bauman's framework: measuring consumption in relation to need and looking at short-term outcomes. Long-term outcomes are generally more difficult to measure using static, point-in-time measures, although there are exceptions, such as physiological measures of malnutrition that would reveal sustained food hardship over time. Juxtaposing these strategies with existing research on basic needs and material hardship, as well as ethnographic work with low-income families, suggests a range of possible constructs that may be appropriate for material hardship measurement. For example, as seen in Exhibit 2.2, most studies of material hardship have included a very similar set of constructs in their measurement. Of these constructs, the following specifically measure short-term outcomes and consumption patterns (related to need):

  • Food security;
  • Housing  Quality, Overcrowding, and Security;
  • Unmet medical need; and
  • Access to consumer durables.

These constructs also are featured in Beverly's (2001) list of recommended hardship indicators, which include: food, housing, utilities, medical, clothing, and consumer durables. (See Exhibit 2.2) These results suggest a trend toward a core set of constructs that measure material need. (Chapter 3 includes a more thorough discussion of the domains included in current research on material hardship.)


Exhibit 2.2
Domains Measured in Several US Surveys and Studies
  SIPP (1991, 1993, 1996) NSAF (1999) (Mayer & Jencks, 1989) (Edin & Lein, 1997) Moving to Opportunities (MTO)(2001) AHS
& Gundersen (1996)
Urban Change (1998) Women's Employment Survey (Danziger et al., 2000) SIPP-Related Studies of Material Hardship
(Bauman, 1998) (Federman et al., 1996) (Beverly, 1999a) (Rector et al., 1999) (Boushey & Gundersen, 2001)
Insufficient Food X X X X X   X X X X X X X
Housing-Quality X*   X X X X X     X X X  
Housing Crowding X* X X   X X X     X   X  
Housing Security X   X X X   X X X X X X X
Difficulty Affording Basic Necessities X X X X X   X X X X X X  
Unmet Medical Need/Access to Medical Care/Health Insurance Coverage X X X X X   X X X   X X X
Access to Consumer Durables X*                 X   X  
*Domain omitted in 1993.

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