Measures of Material Hardship: Final Report. Summary


The analyses presented in this chapter show the items included in the 1996 SIPP's Adult Well-Being Topical Module are potentially useful indicators of material hardship among families with children. Broadly speaking, the results indicate that these measures correspond to general notions about hardship. That is, the measures are related to unfavorable economic circumstances (e.g., low income and limited assets) and suggest that families oftentimes simultaneously experience multiple hardships. Moreover, the prevalence of certain hardships appears to meaningfully distinguish between groups of households that are economically better or worse off (e.g., single adult versus married couple households). The results presented in this chapter can be summarized in the context of the three dimensions of need: basic needs and food security; housing safety and overcrowding; and access to essential durable goods.

  • Basic needs and food security hardships.
    Families with children who have low incomes (less than 100% of FPL) and limited assets (less than $100 in savings or checking accounts) experience basic needs and food security hardships more often than their counterparts with higher incomes and assets. However, not all of these negative outcomes are equally prevalent among low-income families. Evictions and utility shutoffs are far less frequent experiences, which suggests that these relatively "rare" events may describe only the most needy households.

    For the most part, basic needs and food security hardships are equally prevalent among rural and urban households; however, when controlling for income, rural households are slightly less likely to experience these types of hardships. Families that are headed by a single adult are more likely to experience basic needs or food security hardships than households with married adults or other multiple adult configurations.

    There is an anomaly in the results, however, in the case of unmet dental needs. Here, there is no clearly defined relationship between the study's economic, demographic, or household characteristic measures. Given that there may be many other reasons a person does not see a dentist that are unrelated to poverty or material hardship, these findings are not entirely surprising and reflect comments made by Roundtable Meeting participants (see Chapter 3) on this measure's potential usefulness in examining material hardship.

  • Housing safety and overcrowding hardships.
    Generally speaking, families with low incomes and limited assets also are more likely to experience housing safety hardships than their higher income counterparts. Housing safety hardships are more prevalent among rural households and among households headed by a single adult.

    In the case of five of the seven measures, however, there either was no difference (i.e., exposed wires and non-working plumbing) or a weak statistical difference (i.e., broken windows, holes in the floor or ceiling) between households with incomes less than 100% FPL and those with incomes of 100-200% FPL. This finding suggests that these five measures may be less efficient indicators of economic-related hardships. It also is consistent with Roundtable Meeting participants' concerns that the housing safety measures included in the SIPP may both identify households that are well off and those that face economic challenges. (See Chapter 3 for further discussion.) That said, low-income households are four times more likely to experience multiple housing safety issues (i.e., 3 or more or 4 or more). This finding implies that a combined measure of housing safety may be a better indicator of material hardship.

    Families with the low incomes and limited assets are more likely to experience overcrowding. This is especially the case among those that live in urban areas. Single adult headed households are least likely to experience overcrowding; households with married adults and other multiple adult configurations are more likely to live in overcrowded households. This finding is not entirely surprising given that we might expect that households with fewer adults would be less crowded.

  • Access to essential durable goods hardships.
    Very high proportions of households have refrigerators and stoves, with even households in the lowest income group likely to have these durable goods. These findings suggest that these durable goods measures, individually or in combination, will only identify the most needy households.

The findings also suggest that families with children who are in need generally experience multiple hardships. In the aggregate, each of the basic needs hardships is a strong predictor of other types of hardships, and even stronger patterns emerge among households with incomes under 100% FPL. Among low-income families the lack of a refrigerator or stove and housing overcrowding are strong predictors of whether a family experiences basic needs or food security hardships.

While the analyses presented in this chapter go a long way towards furthering our understanding material hardship measurement using the SIPP, more work is still needed to develop a consistent approach to measuring material hardship. In the following chapter, we present some of the unanswered questions and options for future research that may help us move towards establishing a common definition and approach to measuring material hardship.


(7) Material in this subsection and the following is taken from Burstein et al. (2003), Guide to Data Sources on the Determinants of Marriage and Cohabitation.

(8) During Wave 9 of the 1993 panel, this module was administered in two parts: Extended Measures of Well-Being and Basic Needs.

(9) See Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, Survey of Income and Program Participation 1996 Wave 8 Food Security Data File, Technical Documentation and User Notes.

(10) A dependent child is an individual under age 18 who is neither a household head nor the spouse or partner of a household head.

(11) U.S. Census Bureau, Survey Of Income and Program Participation Users' Guide (Supplement To The Technical Documentation), Third Edition, Washington, D.C.2001

(12) The User's Guide (p. 7-3) notes that:

The variance formula for Fay's method is:

Var(Theta0) = {1/[G(1-k)2]} Summation from i=1 to i=G. (Thetai-Theta0)2,           (7-1)


  • G = number of replicates;
    1- k = perturbation factor;
    i = replicate i, i = 1 to G;
    Thetai = ith estimate of the parameter Theta based on the observations included in the ith replicate;
    Theta0 = survey estimate of the parameter Theta based on the full sample.

The 1996 SIPP Panel uses 108 replicate weights, which are calculated on the basis of a perturbation factor of 0.5 (k = 0.5). Inserting those values into Equation (7-1) results in the 1996 SIPP Panel variance formula of

Var(Theta0) = [1/(108*0.52)] Summation from i=1 to i=G. (Thetai-Theta0)2.

The Census Bureau used VPLX software to compute the replicate weights that are available through FERRET.

(13) Variances for this report were estimated using SAS PROC SURVEYMEANS, with the following specifications:

  • proc surveymeans; weight whfnwgt;
    var &varname;
    strata gvarstr;
    cluster ghlfsam;
    domain &domain;

where &varname is the variable being tabulated (e.g. indicator of not paying rent or mortgage), and &domain is the analytic stratifier (e.g. category of income relative to FPL).

(14) Appendix D presents additional descriptive analyses for some durable goods measures that also are included in the SIPP, but have not frequently been used in material hardship definitions or composite measures.

(15) It is important to note that not everyone who responds to Wave 8 also responds to the Adult Well-Being module, which may not comprise all the same individuals that are included in Wave 8.

(16) Recall that the group referred to here as 'rural' in fact is contaminated by inclusion of some percentage of urban households, whose metropolitan status was altered by the Bureau of the Census to preserve confidentiality.

(17) Each cell in the exhibit after the first row shows the proportion of households experiencing the hardship corresponding to the column header, among those households that experienced the hardship indicated by the row description. Comparing these values to the marginal frequencies shown in the first row of the exhibit shows how much more prevalent each hardship is among households experiencing other hardships than among all households in general.

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