Measures of Material Hardship: Final Report. Process for Determining Material Needs


The discussion of absolute and relative needs and corresponding minimum standards points us towards several potential processes for identifying which experiences or shortages constitute a material hardship.

Scientific Research

One approach would be to rely on scientific research that relates hardship to physical necessities. For example, scientific evidence may show that caloric intake below a specified level leads to certain adverse medical conditions. While this process may most readily support basic physiological needs and their effect on medical outcomes, one could imagine social science research advancing to the point where there is a credible body of evidence-based research showing that similar shortages in other goods and services result in negative social outcomes.

Societal Consensus

Another process, similar to the process used in some European contexts, is to develop societal consensus on what needs are important enough to be considered hardships if they are not met. Obtaining the data necessary for such a consensus, however, is a challenging task. As discussed above, there is precedent for developing this type of standard using public opinion surveys (e.g., Townsend, 1979; Mack & Lansley, 1993), and Donnison (1988) clearly outlines a research approach that could be executed to capture this information domestically. Nonetheless, this has not previously been done in the US.

How the Measure Will Be Used

Roundtable Meeting participants observed that the process of determining what constitutes a material need should be conditioned on the purpose for which the material hardship measure will be used. For example, what is included in a hardship measure may differ depending on whether it will be used for research, monitoring, or policymaking purposes. Similarly, participants spoke of the need to understand the role behind the underlying reasons for hardship and how "need" is defined. For example, if measures focus only on self-defined needs, we may miss key elements or overstate the level of hardship experienced. The group also was concerned with whether an absolute boundary between hardship and non-hardship exists. The group's consensus was that if there was a "true" boundary, research should be focused on "finding" or defining this boundary. Alternatively, if the boundary between hardship and non-hardship is arbitrary, it probably should be determined by public consensus.

Link to Negative Outcomes

For now, domestic researchers who study material hardship generally use existing social science research on which needs left unmet will likely to lead to negative outcomes and their perceptions of what the American public would consider a "hardship." This hybrid approach is consistent with what most Roundtable Meeting participants thought was the best strategy for identifying material needs. This has resulted in material hardship thresholds that consistently equate need at the lowest level with the ability to meet basic physiological needs  such as a minimum level of things such food, clothing and shelter that are required for physical functioning (e.g., Bauman, 1998; Bauman, 2002b; Beverly, 1999a; Federman et al., 1996; Mayer & Jencks, 1989; Rector et al., 1999). This physiological approach to defining need is most consistent with the notions that an absolute or near-absolute standard exists and that scientific research can be used to identify basic needs. In contrast, there may be other measures that fit better with the principle of relative need and a process of socially defined necessities.

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