Precarity and health: Theorizing the intersection of multiple material-need insecurities, stigma, and illness among women in the United States

Soc Sci Med. 2020 Jan;245:112683. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112683. Epub 2019 Nov 16.


Material-need insecurities (including insecurities in basic resources such as income, food, housing, and healthcare) are widespread in the United States (US) and may be important predictors of poor health outcomes. How material-need insecurities besides food insecurity are experienced, however, remains under-researched, including how multiple material-need insecurities might intersect and converge on the individual. Here we used qualitative methods to investigate experiences with multiple material-need insecurities among 38 food-insecure women aged over 50 years living with or at risk for HIV in the US. Our aims were: (1) to understand the co-experience of material-need insecurities beyond food insecurity; (2) to elucidate how multiple material-need insecurities might intersect; and (3) to discover how this intersection might be detrimental to health. During November 2017-July 2018, we conducted semi-structured interviews at three sites across the US (Northern California, Georgia, North Carolina) and analyzed the data using an inductive-deductive approach. We identified a common and complex picture of multiple material-need insecurities, stigma, and illness among participants across all three sites. There were five primary themes: (1) insecure income arising from a combination of precarious wage labor and federal disability benefits; (2) resultant experiences of uncertainty, compromised quality, insufficiency, and having to use socially unacceptable coping strategies across finances, food, housing, and healthcare; (3) participants' disempowerment arising from their engagement with social safety net institutions; (4) closely related experiences of intersectional stigma and discrimination; and (5) negative implications for health across a wide range of illnesses. By employing the sociological concept of precarity-a term denoting the contemporary convergence of insecure wage labor and retraction of the welfare state-we combine these themes into a unifying framework of precarity and health. This framework may prove useful for testing how the widespread intersection of multiple material-need insecurities interacts with stigma and discrimination to negatively impact physical and mental health.

Keywords: Disability; Food; Health insurance; Healthcare; Housing; Insecurity; Precarity; United States.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cohort Studies
  • Cost of Illness*
  • Female
  • Food Insecurity*
  • Georgia
  • HIV Infections / complications*
  • HIV Infections / psychology
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • North Carolina
  • Poverty / psychology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Qualitative Research
  • San Francisco
  • Social Stigma*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • United States
  • Women / psychology*