Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Measures for Studying Poverty in Family and Child Research

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Measures for Studying Poverty in Family and Child Research

Article excerpt

Most family scholars take the concept of poverty for granted. The variety of ways people have chosen to define and measure this concept, however, often makes it difficult to interpret or compare research results. We review and critique the ways that poverty has been measured in the family and child literatures as well as the measures that have been used to help understand variations in adaptation among those in poverty. In addition to reviewing more common measures, we include discussions of two new measures that have the potential to contribute to the literature on poverty: basic family budgets and social exclusion.

Key Words: basic family budgets, economic pressure, hunger, income-to-needs ratio, poverty thresholds, social exclusion.

In 2002, almost 35 million people in the United States, including over 12 million children, lived in families with incomes below the federal poverty line (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). A startling 41% of this population was in severe poverty, living on less than one half of the poverty threshold. Such large numbers of people living in poverty in one of the most affluent countries in the world is a startling phenomenon. Family and child researchers, however, are concerned with the impact of poverty or of policies about poverty on families and children.

Although poverty might be seen as a simple, easily understood concept, researchers use a variety of methods to define poverty or to identify families in poverty. When multiple measures are used, it is difficult to interpret research results or to make comparisons across studies. Researchers rarely discuss issues inherent in these measures or alert readers to how the definition of poverty used in one study differs from measures used in studies with which they are comparing results. Instead, most studies leave readers with the impression that all the methods of defining poverty or identifying families in poverty lead researchers to the same economically homogenous population. The income criterion used in some definitions, however, is quite different from that in others. In addition, the uniform application of the most common definition will lead researchers to samples with somewhat different levels of impoverishment depending on the location of the study (i.e., rural vs. urban, geographic region). Those interested in research on low-income families and children must be familiar with these and other issues that sometimes make interpretation of this research quite complicated.

One purpose of this article is to review methods used to identify families or children in poverty. A clear understanding of these is critical when designing and interpreting research on poor families. The literature is replete with reviews of the most commonly used of these measures, the U.S. poverty thresholds (e.g., Betson & Warlick, 1998; Brady, 2003; Brooks-Gunn, Klebanov, Liaw, & Duncan, 1995). Still, we seek to increase family and child scholars' awareness of the debate surrounding these measures so they are better prepared to interpret this research and to make informed decisions when designing studies of those in poverty. We also cover new ground with a discussion of basic family budgets.

The second purpose of this article is to review measures used to study aspects of the poverty experience that help us understand variations in adaptation among those in poverty. Although numerous studies document that those in poverty are at greater risk of poor adaptation than the more affluent, the variability in outcomes among those in poverty is tremendous (Werner & Smith, 1992). Therefore, researchers have developed several measures for understanding diversity within the poverty experience and outcomes associated with it. Little attention has been given to these measures, however. Thus, we provide a rare review of measures used to increase our understanding of the poverty experience. Finally, we make recommendations that cover both types of measures with the intention of strengthening future research on families and children in poverty. …

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