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The impact of multiple disadvantage on subjective wellbeing in NZ families

In 2016 Superu (formerly the Families Commission) began a multi-year research programme about multiple disadvantage. Multiple disadvantage is defined as experiencing multiple difficulties or challenges across several areas of life at the same time (e.g. experiencing low material wellbeing, poor health, and poor quality housing at the same time).

This paper documented the final project in the research programme, and builds on previous work. Its primary aim was to investigate the relationship between life satisfaction and multiple disadvantage.

It explores whether some disadvantages have larger impacts on life satisfaction than others, and tests whether combinations of disadvantages have impacts beyond simply the sum of the impacts of each individual disadvantage.

Key findings

  • In terms of the areas of disadvantage having the largest impact on wellbeing, this research largely confirms the wider literature on life satisfaction (eg, Boarini et al, 2013) [1]. Health has the largest impact on life satisfaction, with both material wellbeing/income and social contact also having a relatively large effect. Crime/safety and poor housing have smaller impacts.
  • The research also shows clear evidence that generally, the overall impact on life satisfaction of experiencing many difficulties at once can be described as the sum of the individual impacts of each difficulty. In this way, multiple disadvantage could be viewed as simply the sum of its parts.
  • That said, there are two specific combinations of disadvantage that are associated with lower levels of life satisfaction than what would be expected from the individual effects on their own; these are health and social connectedness, and health and housing.

Overall this research found relatively little evidence that specific combinations of disadvantage have an additional impact on wellbeing over and above the additive effect of the independent disadvantages. However, the significant negative impacts of poor health combined with poor housing, and poor health combined with a lack of social connections is of potential interest, with the researchers suggesting that further examination of the interactions between poor health and other forms of disadvantage may be warranted.

[1] Boarini, R., Comola, M., Smith, C., Manchin, R., & De Keulenaer, F. (2012). What Makes for a Better Life? Statistics Working Paper 2012/03, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Download the report

For enquiries about this research please email research@msd.govt.nz.

The views and interpretations in this report are those of the researchers and are not the official position of the Ministry of Social Development.

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