Academic journal article Social Work Research

Material Hardship in the United States: Evidence from the Survey of Income and Program Participation

Academic journal article Social Work Research

Material Hardship in the United States: Evidence from the Survey of Income and Program Participation

Article excerpt

Measures of material hardship, which identify households that do not consume minimal levels of very basic goods and services such as food, housing, and medical care, provide important information about well-being. The research discussed in this article used nationally representative data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation to document the prevalence of material hardship in the U.S. population and in several subgroups in 1995. More than 10 percent of Americans experienced at least one hardship in 1995, and the most common hardships were medical need and food insufficiency. Poor individuals, children, African Americans, Hispanics, and those in single-parent households were particularly vulnerable to hardship. In addition, there is evidence that working households are more vulnerable to hardship--especially medical need--than measures of income-poverty suggest.

Key words: children; material hardship; poverty; well-being; working poor

In the United States scholars and policymakers have defined economic hardship almost exclusively in terms of current income. Although concern for income is warranted, social work practitioners, advocates, and researchers also might be interested in knowing whether individuals are meeting their basic needs. This research uses indicators of material hardship, which identify households that do not consume minimal levels of very basic goods and services such as food, housing, and medical care. In particular, the study reported in this article used nationally representative data to identify the prevalence of material hardship in the United States in 1995 and to document the composition of four poverty and hardship groups. Despite public and private transfers to needy individuals, many groups remain vulnerable to hardship. There is also evidence that working households are more vulnerable to hardship--especially medical need--then measures of income-poverty suggest.

MEASURING ECONOMIC HARDSHIP

According to the official measure of poverty, a family is poor if its annual pretax cash income falls below an income threshold corresponding to family size. In 1995 the poverty threshold for one adult and two children was $12,278. Measures of income-poverty may be viewed as "indirect" measures because they define as poor those who do not have the resources to meet some minimal consumption standard (Ringen, 1988; Sen, 1979). However, as many have noted (see, for example, Citro & Michael, 1995), the income measure used to define official poverty status ignores several important economic resources. For example, earned income tax credit (EITC) benefits and the value of near-cash benefits such as food stamps and housing subsidies are not counted as economic resources. In addition, the official definition does not adjust for expenses that cannot be used to purchase necessities, such as income and payroll taxes, child care and other work-related expenses, and child support payments to other households.

Measures of material hardship may be viewed as "direct" measures of poverty because they define as poor "those whose actual consumption fails to meet the accepted conventions of minimum needs" (Sen, 1979, p. 291, emphasis added). Material hardship measures have several advantages over income-poverty measures (Beverly, 2001). In particular, hardship measures acknowledge that indicators of annual income may misrepresent actual economic and material resources. For example, families may receive in-kind transfers or may purchase goods and services with savings or credit. Hardship measures also acknowledge that families face different demands on their economic resources. For example, families face substantial cost-of-living differences and have different out-of-pocket health care and child care expenditures.

Still, hardship measures have several disadvantages. There is currently no consensus regarding the definition and measurement of material hardship. …

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