Measures of Material Hardship: Final Report. Increased Use of Material Hardship Measures by Researchers


Increasingly, policy research and program evaluations have incorporated material hardship measures into their analyses, both to look at whether programs and policies affect specific dimensions of hardship (e.g., food insecurity) and the overall level of material hardship experienced by families (e.g., across multiple dimensions of basic need). For example, recent research has:

  • Compared hardship measures to income-based poverty measures.
    As discussed further in Chapter 3, a number of researchers have constructed a hardship or deprivation index that they subsequently have used to compare families identified as experiencing multiple hardships with families whose income is below the poverty thresholds (Bauman, 1998; Beverly, 1999; Federman et al., 1996; Mayer & Jencks, 1989; Rector et al., 1999). Short (2003) also found that different populations are identified when material hardship measures are compared to alternative income-based poverty measures, which suggests that even if the existing official US poverty statistic is modified the differences between material hardship and poverty measures will persist.
  • Analyzed the effects of family structure on material hardship.
    Hardship measures have been used to examine resource-sharing and family well-being in cohabitating and married couple households. Generally, studies find that married couple households have less material hardship than households with a couple that cohabitates, even when controlling for income and other factors (Bauman, 2002; Lerman, 2002a, 2002b).
  • Contrasted family well-being when adults receive welfare and when they work.
    In a synthesis of findings from ASPE's welfare leavers studies, Acs and Loprest (2001) found that some studies show an increase in food and housing-related hardships after leaving welfare, while others found a decline or no change in material hardship after exiting welfare. In their book, Making Ends Meet, Edin and Lein (1997) found that working mothers experience higher levels of material hardship than those who receive welfare assistance. This occurs despite the fact that working mothers earn wages and have more "regular" income. Danziger et al. (2000), using data from the WES, concluded that although women who work experience higher levels of financial well-being, they still experience material hardship, albeit at somewhat lower levels than women who do not work every month. Other researchers have used measures of material hardship to examine the extent to which families transitioning off welfare are able to meet basic needs (e.g., Polit et al., 2001; Sherman, Amey, Duffield, Ebb, & Weinstein, 1998).
  • Evaluated the effectiveness of policy interventions that provide in-kind assistance such as food or shelter, rather than income.
    Borjas (2001) and Gundersen and Oliveira (2001) used material hardship measures to examine the extent to which in-kind government assistance programs (e.g., food stamps) attain their goal of helping families meet their basic food needs. They find that families with higher food hardship are more likely to participate in food stamps than other families. However, sophisticated analyses are required to disentangle causality and evaluate program efficacy.
  • Examined more complex behavior such as labor market participation and transitions from welfare to self-sufficiency.
    Material hardship has been shown to play a role in individual decision-making about transitions from welfare to work or self-support and the likelihood that families will be able to sustain self-sufficiency (Bauman, 2002).

In each of these studies, material hardship measures provide a valuable picture of family well-being, supplementing what can be learned from traditional income-based poverty measures.

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