Measures of Material Hardship: Final Report. Other Hardships


Many of the hardship indexes we examined also augmented the basic needs indicators included in their index with housing quality, housing overcrowding, and durable goods indicators.

Housing Safety

Five of the studies (Mayer & Jencks, 1989; Edin & Lein, 1997; Federman et al., 1996; Beverly, 1999; and Rector et al., 1999) included a dichotomous housing safety indicator in their material hardship index. Households were identified as having a housing safety problem in these hardship indexes if they experienced a set number of housing problems. (Exhibit 3.6)

While researchers have used a relatively consistent set of housing problem measures to describe housing safety (e.g., the SIPP-based studies use the exact same measures and the two non-SIPP studies use very similar measures), the ability to compare housing safety-related hardships across studies and in relationship to overall material hardship is confounded by the different thresholds researchers use to identify a household as having a housing safety problem. For example:

  • Mayer and Jencks (1989) considered respondents as having "housing problems" if a respondent had two or more problems (out of seven potential problems) that were due to "high cost" of repairs or a "problem with a landlord."
  • Edin and Lein (1997) identified low-income female-headed households as having housing safety issues if they experienced at least two housing problems (out of eight potential problems).
  • Federman et al. (1996) identified SIPP respondents as having "moderate" housing upkeep problems if three or four problems were noted, and "severe" problems if five or more housing safety problems were reported (out of the seven SIPP items).
  • Beverly (1999) defined a household as having a "housing problem" if three or more housing upkeep problems were present (out of the seven SIPP items).
  • Rector et al. (1999) defined moderate housing upkeep problems as three-or-four of the seven SIPP items and substantial housing upkeep problems as five or more of these items.

Additionally, unlike food-related hardships, not all researchers include housing safety-related problems as an indicator in their material hardship index. Discussions at the Roundtable Meeting revealed that researchers perceive a number of problems and limitations with these types of indicators. (See Roundtable Meeting Summary in Appendix A.) First, the measures are inherently subjective and do not capture the severity of the circumstances. Respondents indicate whether they feel a problem is present, but it is unclear as to how severe the situation should be for the circumstance to actually indicate a housing hardship exists.

Second, it may be the case that even families who are well-off and do not experience material hardship occasionally experience some of these conditions (e.g., leaky room, a broken window). Although the analyses presented in Chapter 4 (Exhibits 4.6 and 4.7) show some correlation between the incidence of housing problems and low-income, this contrast is not as stark as with other hardship measures.

Lastly, with the exception of the measures used by Mayer and Jencks (1989), the questions used to construct the studies' housing problem indicators do not identify the cause of the circumstance. Mayer and Jencks (1989) ask the respondent whether this problem had not been taken care of "due to the high cost involved, lack of time, a problem with the landlord, or some other reason" (p. 93). Only those conditions attributable to cost or a landlord problem were included in their housing problems index.


Exhibit 3.6
Questions Used to Construct Housing Quality Indicators
Items from the 1996 SIPP (All Questions Included in the 1992 SIPP) Studies Using SIPP Data Studies Using Non-SIPP Data
Bauman (1998) Beverly (1999) Federman et al. (1992) Lerman (2002a)1 Rector et al. (1999) Short & Shea (1995) Danziger et al. (2000) Edin & Lein (1997) Mayer & Jencks (1989)
Problems with pests such as rats, mice, roaches, or other insects   X X   X     X X
A leaking roof or ceiling   X X   X     X X
Broken window glass or windows that can't shut   X X   X       X
Exposed electric wires in the finished areas of your home   X X   X     X X
A toilet, hot water heater, or other plumbing that doesn't work   X X   X     X X
Holes in the walls or ceiling, or cracks wider than the edge of a dime   X X   X        
Holes in the floor big enough for someone to catch their foot on   X X   X        
Other Non-SIPP Questions
Unreliable furnace, boiler, or heating system/heating system does not work properly               X X
Broken locks or no locks on door in unit               X  
A stove or refrigerator that doesn't work               X X
Inadequate garbage pickup               X  
Threshold Used to Identify Household with Housing Quality Hardship N/A 3 or More Housing Quality Problems 3 or More Housing Quality Problems N/A 3-4 for Moderate Housing Quality Hardship; 5 or More for Substantial N/A N/A 2 or More Housing Quality Problems 2 or More Housing Quality Problems  Due to Cost or Landlord
1 This is the only study that used data from the 1996 SIPP. All others used data from the 1992 and 1993 SIPPs.


Overcrowding in households has been shown to be a problem in low-income households, especially in communities where rents are high, and in certain communities, such as Indian reservations, Alaska native villages, and communities with growing immigrant populations (Richardson, 2001).(6)

Four of the studies include an indicator of overcrowded housing in their material hardship indexes. Each study identified overcrowded households using a metric from the 1996 SIPP: the ratio of the total number of rooms in a household to the number of people living in the household, not counting bathrooms and hallways. Federman et al. (1992), Lerman (2002a), and Mayer and Jencks (1989) define a household as overcrowded as more than one person per room. Rector et al. (1999) identify households with 1-1.50 persons per room as experiencing moderate overcrowding and those with 1.51 or more persons per room as experiencing substantial overcrowding.

Some researchers excluded an overcrowding indicator from their hardship index due to its perceived limitations. For example, Mayer and Jencks (1989) excluded overcrowding from their final hardship index on the basis that it was found to have, "little effect on respondents' assessments of their living standards, perhaps because it does not coincide with subjective standards" (p. 96). Secondly, overcrowding measures do not take into account the size of rooms, the age and gender of household members or the economies of scale associated with living space (e.g., households that live in large living spaces need fewer rooms per person than those that live in small living spaces).

Durable Goods

Federman et al. (1992) and Rector et al. (1999) included two indicators of whether a household has two essential durable goods: a stove or a refrigerator in their residence or building. In both cases, these researchers find that the absence of these durable goods occurs only in vey low-income households. This finding is confirmed by cross-tabulations presented in Chapter 4 where 99% of households with children under 100% of FPL have a refrigerator and 98% have a stove. This suggests that these indicators identify only the most needy households.

View full report


"report.pdf" (pdf, 4Mb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®