Poster Paper: Prevalence and Persistence of Material Hardship during the Current Economic Boom

Thursday, November 7, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Exhibits (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Michael Karpman, Stephen Zuckerman, Dulce Gonzalez and Gina Adams, Urban Institute

Direct assessments of material hardship can provide a broader understanding of families’ ability to meet their basic needs than traditional poverty measures. This study uses data from the Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey (WBNS)—a new, nationally representative, internet-based survey of US nonelderly adults—to monitor changes in individual and family material well-being during a period of low and declining unemployment. Approximately 7,500 adults ages 18-64 participate in each round of this annual survey, with samples drawn from a probability-based internet panel.

We find that in December 2018, nearly 40 percent of adults reported that their families had difficulty paying or were unable to pay for housing, utilities, food, or medical care during the past year, a rate that was statistically unchanged from December 2017. During this period, there were modest declines in the share of adults reporting being unable to pay utility bills, having a utility shut off, or having problems paying medical bills, as well as a reduction in the share reporting more than one type of hardship. However, there were no significant changes in the share reporting difficulty paying their rent or mortgage (9 percent), unmet needs for medical care due to costs (18 percent), or household food insecurity (23 percent), which is estimated at a higher rate in the WBNS when compared with interviewer-administered surveys. Levels of hardship are highest among adults in low-income families (i.e., below 200 percent of poverty) and those living with dependent children. Regression models indicate that, among low-income families with children, the likelihood of experiencing material hardship is greatest among those with high exposure to and limited protection from adverse financial shocks (i.e., those with health problems or income instability, and those without health insurance or with limited savings).

These findings suggest that, despite one of the strongest labor markets in decades, many families face persistent challenges in meeting their basic needs. Although continued employment and wage growth may lead to further reductions in material hardship, significant progress likely depends on additional policies that raise and stabilize incomes, offset the cost of essential expenses, and protect families from financial instability.