Some quirks about measuring material standards of living

Large social surveys in most countries now include questions about whether the household is able to afford basic necessities and can meet all of its resource needs.

In the United States, these measures are called “hardship” indicators, and in Europe they are called “deprivation” measures — the distinction may seem merely semantic, but I think it reflects a broader difference in outlooks. American policymakers, on the whole, are more concerned with whether people meet an absolute threshold of wellbeing (the elusive poverty line), and Europeans tend to think about poverty as something that could vary in different social contexts. For example, Europeans ask many questions that seem to be get at something like relative deprivation, “could you afford to take a vacation this year?” “can you afford to have people over to your house for a meal?” The main social survey in the U.S. that measures deprivation, the SIPP, contains no measures that look at leisure or social opportunities (beyond the basic quality of the neighborhood).

There are also some quirky cultural differences. Consider how different surveys ask about food security:

“could afford to eat meat or fish every second day if wished” (Europe)

“went without meals because of shortage of money” (Australia)

“household sometimes/often  did not have enough to eat because of lack of money” (U.S.)

“could afford to eat a fruit each day if wished” (Japan)

I have no idea why these questions are different. Maybe fruit in Japan is just really expensive?

About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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One Response to Some quirks about measuring material standards of living

  1. debbie says:

    From everything I’ve heard from those who have traveled and worked in Japan, fruit is, in fact, very expensive. I believe it is even considered the more extravagant food group; I have hard it is not uncommon for pieces of fruit to sell for hundreds of dollars. Interesting that it would appear in this way on a survey – I can only imagine how that question would be received by most Americans.

    I have also had interesting experiences with diversity in views of nutrition, livelihood, and diet choices in relation to poverty and livelihood. When volunteering with local schools in the slums of Nairobi, children were fed lunch by the school (as an added incentive for attendance), the supplies for which were donated by various charitable agencies. Many westerners who were involved in school funding and programming were very concerned with children being fed meat. Meat was relatively expensive in Nairobi, and despite there being a great selection of affordable protein sources from lentils, beans, etc. There was a clear priority to feed these children meat, to the point in which it was paid for with flexible funds that could have be used for other school needs i.e. benches, school books, desks.

    As an omnivore myself, I am not attempting to refute nutritional advantages of meat over non-meat protein sources, but I will say that I found this priority odd, particularly because Kenyan school teachers and administrators themselves did not seem to be so preoccupied with the provision of meat to their students. I think of my many vegetarian peers who are equally healthy to their meat-eating counterparts, but I also remember that these are choices, not hardships, that they have taken on. Instead of focusing on the nutritional trade offs, I think this serves as an interesting illustration of how those in poverty and under financial hardship choose their food, and who chooses it for them. How we view hardships with diet can be both shaped by local markets and cultural norms. It is interesting to think of a respondent’s thought process over eating or not eating meat, fruit, or vegetables based on affordability, when that might not have anything to do with their preferences or consumption. Interesting post Brendan!

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