Material Hardship among Nonelderly Adults and Their Families in 2017: Implications for the Safety Net

Author: Dulce Gonzalez, Michael Karpman, Stephen Zuckerman
Regions: North America
Country: United States of America
Year: 2018
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Federal and state policymakers are weighing changes to federal programs that help low-income people meet their basic needs for food, medical care, and shelter. As policymakers consider these changes to the public safety net, they run the risk of increasing material hardship, which could have detrimental short- and long-term impacts on children and adults.

How do we assess material hardship in 2017?

Measuring a family’s ability to meet basic needs can provide a broader understanding of well-being than income-based poverty indicators. Yet, policymakers and researchers have few tools to monitor trends in material hardship as the economy evolves and new policies take effect. To fill this gap, the Urban Institute launched the Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey (WBNS) in December 2017 to track individual and family well-being at a time when the economy is improving but the safety net may be changing significantly.

In this report, we use WBNS data to provide baseline estimates of the share of nonelderly adults who experienced material hardship in 2017, focusing on four critical areas: housing, utilities, food, and health care. Given the increasing consideration of work as a condition of program eligibility, we assess how well income and employment protect individuals and families from hardship. We then examine how hardship varies by demographic and health characteristics and conclude by focusing on the overlapping hardships facing nonelderly adults and their families.

Who experiences material hardship?

The findings from this analysis show that many families experience material hardship over the course of a year. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Even with the economy approaching full employment, nearly 40 percent of adults report that they or their families had trouble meeting at least one basic need for food, health care, housing, or utilities in 2017.
  • Though these difficulties are most prevalent among those with lower incomes, material hardship extends across the income distribution and affects families with and without workers.
  • Adults are more likely to report material hardship if they are in fair or poor health or have multiple chronic conditions, but rates of hardship are also elevated for adults who are young, female, black or Hispanic, less educated, and living with children.
  • Adults who report one type of hardship during the year often report other types as well. Among adults reporting at least one hardship, 60.2 percent report two or more hardships, and 34.7 percent report three or more hardships.

What are the potential implications of proposed changes to the safety net?

Though the nation’s largest safety net programs have been found to mitigate hardship, these findings highlight gaps in the assistance they offer to meet basic needs. Policies being considered or enacted in 2018 could widen these gaps. These policies include expanded work requirements for recipients of SNAP benefits, Medicaid, housing vouchers, and public housing; increased rental costs and health insurance premiums for poor and near-poor benefit recipients; and a planned change to public charge determinations that could adversely affect lawfully present immigrants if they or their family members receive public assistance.

As policymakers seek to promote widespread adoption or expansion of work requirements, this study highlights several potential barriers to work facing adults who already experience hardship. Hardship rates are high among adults reporting chronic health conditions, which may affect their ability to work. Levels of hardship are also high among adults who lack education beyond high school and who may not have the skills needed for jobs that pay a living wage.

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