The structure of material hardship in U.S. households: An examination of the coherence behind common measures of well-being

Colleen Heflin, John Sandberg, Patrick Rafail

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Scopus citations


Motivated by the growing interest in and the usage of measures of material hardship, together with the lack of a comprehensive theoretical understanding of the how indicators of material hardship relate to one another, we develop and test five conceptual models of the structural coherence of material hardship. While many previous analyses have relied on a unidimensional model of hardship, we argue that this is not conceptually and empirically sufficient. Instead, we compare the standard unidimensional account of hardship to a model that contrasts hardship related to physical necessities and hardship in less critical areas, two models contrasting hardships due to short-term constraints and those with longer time horizons, and finally, a model that posits each nominal type of hardship is best represented by its own latent construct. Using nationally representative data from the 2001 and 2004 panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) (U.S. Census Bureau 2001, 2004), we estimate confirmatory factor analyses, which suggest that a model of hardship that separates different dimensions-health, food, bill paying, and housing hardship-fits this data better than any of the other conceptual models tested. This finding suggests strongly that the four aspects of material hardship modeled here, though obviously associated, are best understood as arising from processes and structures that are not identical. We discuss implications of our findings for both the research community and policy makers in the conclusion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)746-764
Number of pages19
JournalSocial Problems
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Food insufficiency
  • Food security
  • Housing
  • Material hardship
  • Well-being

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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