Dynamics of Material Hardship in the Women’s Employment Study

Year: 2005

Research Center: Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Investigator: Heflin, Colleen

Institution: University of Kentucky

Project Contact:
Colleen Heflin
Martin School of Public Policy & Administration
University of Kentucky
429 Patterson Office Tower
Lexington, KY 40506-0027
Phone: 859-257-8608


An abundance of literature examines the dynamics of poverty, but little research exists on the dynamics of material hardship. Within a welfare sample, this study analyzes common experiences of material hardship over time, identifies material hardships that are more prevalent, and examines if women experience multiple hardships.

Data come from five waves of the Women’s Employment Study, a stratified random sample of welfare recipients from one Michigan urban county in February 1997. The data measure six different forms of material hardship: food insufficiency, telephone disconnection, utility disconnection, unmet medical needs, improper winter clothing, and housing problems.

Findings suggest that, while cross-sectional reports of material hardship are comparable to those reported in past studies, the number of respondents who reported ever experiencing each form of hardship is substantially higher. Unmet medical needs, reported by 56 percent of the respondents, and telephone disconnection are the most frequently indicated forms of material hardship. Reports of food insufficiency and housing problems follow closely. Improper winter clothing, experienced by 20 percent of the respondents, and utility disconnection are the least commonly reported hardships.

Results also suggest that respondents are likely to experience multiple forms of hardship over the observation period. This finding perhaps indicates that the overall quality of life within these households is quite low at some point (or points) during the transition from welfare to work. In fact, only 1 in 10 respondents reported that their household never experienced any material hardship over the 5-year observation period. On average, respondents reported 2.58 types of material hardship. Across all types of hardship, respondents report an average of 4.41 hardships.