Publication Date

April 2006


We use longitudinal data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) spanning the 1996 to 1999 period to estimate the prevalence of several types of material hardships among working-age people with and without disabilities. The hardships studied relate to: the ability to meet expenses; ability to pay rent or mortgage and utility bills; ability to obtain needed medical and dental care; and food security. Several alternative measures of disability are used, including distinctions between short and long-term disability. We find that, regardless of the disability measure used, people with disabilities experience various kinds of material hardship at substantially higher rates than their counterparts without disabilities. Hardship experiences did not differ dramatically between those with short and long-term disabilities.

We estimate logit models of the likelihood of reporting material hardships to assess the importance of disability after controlling for income and other sociodemographic characteristics. We find that disability is an important determinant of material hardship even after controlling for these factors. All else constant, the odds of reporting hardship are 70 to 280 percent greater among people with disabilities compared with people without disabilities, depending on the measure of disability and the specific hardship considered. To illustrate the differences between those with and without disabilities from another perspective, we use the logit estimates to calculate the household income individuals with disabilities would need to attain the same likelihood of reporting a given material hardship as those without disabilities with household income at the official poverty level. We find that people with disabilities living alone would need annual incomes on the order of $18,000 to $38,000 to experience the same level of hardship, on average, as those without disabilities with incomes at the poverty level (about $10,000), depending on the nature of the disability and the hardship considered.

We also estimate disability prevalence among working-age people with incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level and reporting hardships. A large majority of the low-income respondents reporting a material hardship in 1998 also reported a disability of some sort between 1996 and 1999. Among the hardships studied, people with disabilities made up the largest shares of those not getting needed medical care (64 percent) and those reporting food insecurity with hunger (72 percent).

The findings suggest that comparisons of conventional poverty rates for people with and without disabilities may understate the differences in the relative economic well-being of these two populations. At a given level of income, people with disabilities will not, on average, achieve the same level of material well-being as those without disabilities. The findings provide support for policies that account for disability-related expenditures and needs when determining eligibility for means-tested assistance programs. The findings also highlight an important limitation of the official poverty measure; it overstates the economic relative well-being of a group that represents a large share of the low-income population, people with disabilities.


Suggested citation
She, P. & Livermore, G. (2006) Material Hardship, poverty, and disability among working-age adults. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Employment Policy for Persons with Disabilities.

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