Measures of Material Hardship: Final Report. Limitations of Material Hardship Measures


Despite their growing popularity, measures of material hardship are not without their weaknesses and limitations. Most importantly, despite recent efforts to further our understanding of material hardship and its measurement, a common definition of material hardship does not exist, nor is there a standard approach to its measurement. More specifically, since there is no commonly agreed upon standard of material need that applies to everyone, researchers have used somewhat different definitions and measurement approaches. For example:

  • Researchers have included different dimensions of material need or consumption (e.g., food, shelter, medical care) in their operational definitions of material hardship; and,
  • Within these dimensions, researchers have measured different constructs (e.g., housing quality, hunger, food insecurity, clothing in wintertime).

Additionally, there has been little research on the validity of specific measures and how they compare to more traditional economic measures of income and poverty.

Researchers also have made different choices about how to present material hardship data. Some report measures as independent indicators of need, while other researchers have used different strategies to combine hardship measures into composite indexes or scales. The composite measures describe hardship both within dimensions (e.g., food) and across dimensions (e.g., food, shelter, medical care). These issues are further complicated by the fact that no nationally-representative survey regularly collects data on multiple forms of hardship.(1)

Material hardship measurement also is vulnerable to criticisms about the role played by individual choice and preferences. Because of personal preferences, people may choose to not consume specific goods or services that others may consider necessities. For example, people may report that they have not eaten on a particular day or are hungry because they have chosen to use their limited resources to purchase other goods and services. To the extent that hardship measures are not linked to a particular cause, they may be subject to questions about their appropriateness as a measure or might overestimate the actual level of hardship that is experienced.

These and other limitations of material hardship measures are examined in more detail in the remainder of this report.

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