Measures of Material Hardship: Final Report. Implications for Defining Material Hardship


These three themes and the earlier distinction between resource-based (e.g., income) and deprivation poverty measures suggest an approach for developing a common definition of material need and identifying a standard below which people experience material hardship. For the purpose of measuring material need we are less interested in indirect assessments of available resources than in the direct assessment of the extent to which people have the intrinsic goods they need, after having made use of the resources at their disposal.

Additionally, there is some logic in minimizing the role played by individual choice and preferences when defining material need. One purpose of a material hardship measure is to supplement the existing US poverty statistic, which already measures resource availability and accounts for individual preferences and choice. Nonetheless, collecting data that shows whether a need is not being met due to lack of resources, rather than personal preferences or other circumstances, would strengthen the claim that a hardship already exists. We also are most interested in learning whether people succeed in meeting a given set of socially-defined needs, regardless of individual choice.

One way to minimize the role of individual choice and personal preference is to focus on needs that are closer to "absolute" rather than to "relative" needs. Focusing on a core set of very basic needs, which are fairly closely related to physiological functioning, has the additional value of emphasizing needs about which there are fewer disagreements as to what constitutes a hardship. Absolute material needs also have the most applicability across population segments. It is difficult, however, to define needs with no consideration of the context of the society in which people live, and so some consideration of relative needs may be useful. In addition, it may be possible and valuable to develop measures that differ for families in different situations, just as the federal poverty measure varies by family size and food security is calculated differently for households with and without dependent children.

Finally, several researchers at the Roundtable Meeting advised working on both improving scientific knowledge (regarding which hardships cause negative outcomes) and developing societal consensus (especially in specifying socially-defined needs beyond the bare minimum required for survival) as future steps towards refining the definition and conceptual understanding of material hardship.

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