"Every day in the United States millions of low-income Americans struggle to make ends meet, regularly facing tough decisions over forgoing necessities like adequate nutrition and healthcare or taking on long-term financial debt. Despite a growing recognition of the heterogeneity and complexities of hardships that Americans face, both the academic literature and most U.S. welfare programs continue to rely on simple measures of income or poverty designations. To address these concerns, material hardship scholars measure direct outcomes such as hunger or housing instability to paint a fuller picture of U.S. inequality. While the extant material hardship literature has provided valuable insights into how families experience poverty, we still know little about how sociodemographic characteristics overlap to deepen insecurity. Analyzing data from the U.S. Census Bureau PULSE survey, which measures hardship among a representative sample of U.S. households, this paper provides a more comprehensive picture of material hardship among American families. I combine consistent findings in the material hardship literature on disparities in health, food, energy, and housing hardship with intersectional theory, which describes how overlapping disadvantaged identities like race and gender interact to further intensify disparate outcomes.
Utilizing a series of interaction regression models which allow for direct group comparisons on a sample of more than a million households from July 2021 through November 2022, I find strong evidence for intersectional effects in material hardship. Race is a key axis of intersection, wherein racial minorities (Black and Hispanic) face a higher baseline of nearly all forms of hardship, and these disparities grow even greater when other disadvantage characteristics overlap. Black and Hispanic individuals who identify as gender nonconforming, who have children in the home, and who do not have a college degree face substantially higher rates of hardship than these individual identities. For example, gender nonconforming individuals generally face higher rates of hardship than men or women, but those who identify as gender nonconforming are significantly materially worse off if they are also racial minorities. Importantly, these findings help to disaggregate previous findings in the material hardship literature. Research has consistently found that having children in the home is a key predictor of higher rates of hardship, but my findings show that these effects are driven by identity intersections, wherein Black, Hispanic, and gender nonconforming respondents all face a large hardship “penalty” from having children while white men and women are no worse off. Similarly, having a college degree significantly reduces hardship for white individuals while Black individuals do not experience a substantial reduction in hardship from having a college education. These results provide key insights for understanding the complexities of material hardship in the United States, which should be further interrogated by scholars and utilized by policymakers to craft effective, evidence-based solutions for struggling U.S. families that are often overlooked."