Income Poverty and Material Hardship: How Strong is the Association?

December 2004

John Iceland, University of Maryland. Kurt Bauman, U.S. Census Bureau.

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Many have argued that “poverty” should represent more than just a shortfall of income in a given time period, as it is most often currently measured. While researchers have generally assumed that more severe experiences of income poverty are more strongly associated with other, perhaps intrinsically more important, material well-being outcomes, this paper is one of the first to empirically examine the extent of these relationships. Using data from the 1996 Survey of Income and Program Participation, We find that income poverty is strongly associated with food insecurity, difficulty meeting basic needs, and possession of consumer durables. While poverty had a significant association with the three other hardship measures considered—housing problems, neighborhood problems, and fear of crime—these associations were not as strong, as the latter are likely more affected by other factors such as assets and location of residence. Our findings therefore suggest that various measures of material hardship should not be considered monolithically either conceptually or even from a policy perspective, where, for example, short-term income transfers would likely have different effects on different basic capabilities.

Poverty Trends and Measurement, Research Methods