Measures of Material Hardship: Final Report. Summary


Researchers and policymakers who are interested in measuring material hardship are faced with the definitional and operational challenges of: 1) conceptualizing and defining hardship; and 2) measuring families' hardship experiences and creating composite measures that summarize these experiences across domains (e.g., food, shelter, medical care). Research to date by European and, to a lesser extent, domestic researchers suggests an approach for developing a common definition of material need and identifying a standard below which people experience material hardship. Specifically, we are most interested in:

  • Directly assessing the extent to which people have the basic goods and services they need after using all of the resources at their disposal;
  • Minimizing the role played by individual choice and preferences when defining material need; and
  • Learning whether people succeed in meeting a given set of socially defined needs, regardless of individual choice. This may be accomplished by focusing on a core set of basic needs that is fairly closely related to physiological functioning.

These principles, however, are a starting point for discussion. There are still different viewpoints as to what constitutes material need, and corresponding thresholds for identifying material hardship. Additionally, there are other aspects of measurement and analysis that require consideration. These include:

  • Choosing appropriate constructs for measuring need;
  • Selecting reliable and valid measures; and
  • Deciding how to summarize a wide array of potential measures into a smaller, more manageable number of measures, or possibly a material hardship index.

A number of researchers have tackled these issues and developed approaches for measuring material hardship. In the next chapter we compare the features of nine studies that have defined and measured material hardship using an index.


(2) It is important to note that some researchers (e.g., Townsend, 1979, pp. 37-38) disagree about the existence of a fundamental difference between absolute and relative needs.

(3) In the same paper, Mayer and Jencks use a statistical test to determine whether unit weighting is appropriate, and find that it is.

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