Understanding poverty is essential to the practice of social work. Since the 1960s, domestic poverty research has focused almost exclusively on one conception of poverty, income poverty, as defined by the Official Poverty Measure (OPM) of the federal government. Recent work by economists argues for a consumption-based rather than income-based measure. A middle path found deep in the social work tradition focuses on material hardship rather than income or consumption. Material hardship, for the purposes of this paper, means experiences such as being unable to pay essential expenses, like rent or a mortgage, eviction, utility shutoffs, and food insecurity. A small, but growing, body of research examines material hardship but thus far has been limited to either cross-sectional data or non-nationally representative data (Beverly 2001; Heflin 2006; Mayer and Jencks 1989). This paper centers on two key questions: Who enters a spell of material hardship and why do the enter it? Who exits a spell of material hardship and why do they exit it?
This paper draws upon data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), a longitudinal survey representative of the non-institutionalized civilian population of the United States conducted by the US Census Bureau. In the 2008 panel of the SIPP the topical module measuring material hardship was repeated for the first time. This paper takes advantage of this repeated measure to examine the dynamics of entry into, and exit from, a spell of material hardship. Descriptive statistics and regression analysis are used to accomplish this goal.
There is some, but not total, overlap in the population defined as poor by the OPM and those experiencing material hardship. About 20% of the population experiences material hardship but is not counted in our national poverty measures, while half of the poor manage to avoid material hardship. The importance of race in this story cannot be understated. The probability of falling into a spell of material hardship for African Americans with a bachelor’s degree is equivalent to that of a non-Hispanic white without a high school diploma, approximately 17%.
Income instability is an often-overlooked factor in economic wellbeing while access to consumer credit and the welfare state do little to lower the probability of falling into a spell of material hardship or exiting one.
Conclusions and Implications:
Further research is needed to re-orient our conception of poverty away from a monomaniacal focus on the OPM. Doing so will enable us to see the actual material conditions in which people live and the inadequacy of our current safety net for the task ahead.
Beverly, Sondra G. 2001. “Material Hardship in the United States: Evidence from the Survey of Income and Program Part.” Social Work Research25(3).
Heflin, Colleen M. 2006. “Dynamics of Material Hardship in the Women’s Employment Study.” Social Service Review80(3):377–97.
Mayer, Susan and Christopher Jencks. 1989. “Poverty and the Distribution of Material Hardship.” The Journal of Human Resources 24(1).