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A Measure Whose Time has Come: Formalizing Time Poverty

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Poverty remains a primary public policy issue, and a large literature has discussed the limitations of an income poverty measure. Using income as an indicator of poverty is a helpful simplification designed to capture ability to meet consumption needs. We argue that time is a basic economic resource allocated to create well-being along with income. Time is a scarce resource that individuals and households must allocate to produce goods, obtain services, and pursue rest and relaxation. Time poverty has been proposed as a complement to income poverty, yet it remains a relatively unknown measure in both policy and research spheres. The many ways time poverty is conceptualized and measured across studies has limited its adoption. To help familiarize readers with time poverty, we apply basic tenets of income poverty measurement to time. We conduct a survey of the theoretical and empirical literature discussing similarities, differences, and the pros and cons of different approaches to time poverty. In particular, inconsistent definition and categorization of necessary and discretionary time has been a barrier to the transparent application of time poverty in the literature, and we outline guidance on defining necessary and discretionary time for future studies. Finally, we outline future research directions for time poverty.

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  1. It also ignores capital gains and “in-kind transfers such as food stamps and housing subsidies, child care subsidies, or the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), all of which increase the economic well-being of the family; nor does the money income concept account for work expenses or taxes paid, which reduce well-being” (Meyer and Wallace 2009, p. 37). Further, by officially defining families as consisting of related or married household members, it is insensitive to the current reality of varied household structures, most importantly the increasing prevalence of unmarried partners.

  2. Douthitt (2000) ascribes this assertion to Vickery, but note that Vickery's time constraint, itself based on the inclusion of “necessary leisure”, was 81.4 h per week.


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Correspondence to Jason R. Williams.

Appendix: A Brief Discussion of Multidimensional Poverty

Appendix: A Brief Discussion of Multidimensional Poverty

One theme in the poverty literature focuses on so-called multi-dimensional poverty (e.g., Oxford Poverty and Human Development Index), which essentially steps back to consider a broader view of resources. These measures may account for psychosocial factors, such as quality of work, engagement in political activities, social connectedness, and psychological well-being, physical health and wellness, and access to basic needs. Haveman (2009) notes the importance of such considerations, arguing that individuals may be socially poor (e.g., socially isolated), house poor (e.g., living in squalid conditions), and health poor (e.g., unhealthy). By moving beyond income, researchers and policymakers hope to capture a more complete view of hardship and move towards a deeper understanding of the human condition. The multi-dimensional poverty literature, however, has yet to reach consensus on what to measure.

Multidimensional poverty measures are largely motivated by the idea that less well-off people tend to experience deprivation as more than just money. In participatory research exercises, OPHI (2012) found supporting evidence for defining poverty beyond just income, with participants describing ill-being as a function of “unemployment, low income, poor health, nutrition, lack of adequate sanitation and clean water, social exclusion, low education, bad housing conditions, violence, shame, disempowerment and so on” (p. 1). A marginal increase in income will amend these deprivations to varying degrees, depending on time and access to markets. Money income is a better indicator of consumption in the context of complete and functioning formal markets, less so in areas where home production and barter predominate.

There is growing support for constructing multi-dimensional measures of poverty, even as promoters argue about which dimensions to include.

While the Western nations were well served by an income poverty measure a half-century ago, today a variety of additional considerations—including the level of cognitive and noncognitive skills, access to important social institutions (for example, the labor market), the ability to attain minimum standards of food and shelter, and having sufficient time for home production and child care—need to be taken into account (Haveman 2009, pp. 397–398).

An advantage of a multi-dimensional poverty measure is that it is likely to be more sensitive to policy interventions. For example, if a society changes policy in order to increase school attendance, this will have little effect on income for years, but will have a more immediate effect on measures of schooling (OPHI 2012) or cognitive and noncognitive skills. Further, the long-term effects of increased education go beyond income. For example, education is positively correlated with health behaviors and outcomes, such as smoking and mortality, and measuring only income can severely underestimate the positive impacts of the policy.

As we stated in the main text, however, multidimensional poverty measures are not without their critics. There are often restrictive data requirements, and cross-country comparisons may be difficult if multidimensional poverty measures are context specific. Few have been repeated, further hindering the ability of policymakers to interpret an index value and gauge relative progress.

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Williams, J.R., Masuda, Y.J. & Tallis, H. A Measure Whose Time has Come: Formalizing Time Poverty. Soc Indic Res 128, 265–283 (2016).

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