Avoiding Material Hardship: The Buffer Function of Wealth
Richard Rodems1, Fabian Pfeffer1
1University of Michigan

We assess how a variety of disruptive life-course events (such as divorce, disability, or income instability) impact the well-being of U.S. households and trace the importance of household wealth in helping families experiencing these events avoid entering a spell of material hardship. Using longitudinal data from two panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) and regression and decomposition analyses, we reveal that the relationship between disruptive events and the likelihood of experiencing a new spell of material hardship strongly varies across the wealth distribution, suggesting that high household wealth provides an effective private safety net. Like public insurance schemes, wealth insurance helps buffer the effects of disruptive events on material hardship, but unlike public insurance schemes, reliance on private wealth further stratifies the economic well-being of households.