Problems with measuring socioeconomic status (SES)—frequently included in clinical and public health studies as a control variable and less frequently as the variable(s) of main interest—could affect research findings and conclusions, with implications for practice and policy. We critically examine standard SES measurement approaches, illustrating problems with examples from new analyses and the literature. For example, marked racial/ethnic differences in income at a given educational level and in wealth at a given income level raise questions about the socioeconomic comparability of individuals who are similar on education or income alone. Evidence also shows that conclusions about nonsocioeconomic causes of racial/ethnic differences in health may depend on the measure—eg, income, wealth, education, occupation, neighborhood socioeconomic characteristics, or past socioeconomic experiences—used to “control for SES,” suggesting that findings from studies that have measured limited aspects of SES should be reassessed. We recommend an outcome- and social group–specific approach to SES measurement that involves (1) considering plausible explanatory pathways and mechanisms, (2) measuring as much relevant socioeconomic information as possible, (3) specifying the particular socioeconomic factors measured (rather than SES overall), and (4) systematically considering how potentially important unmeasured socioeconomic factors may affect conclusions. Better SES measures are needed in data sources, but improvements could be made by using existing information more thoughtfully and acknowledging its limitations.
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Error bars indicate 95% confidence intervals.
Neighborhood poverty defined as percentage of families in the census tract who had 1989 income that was below the federal poverty level; poor adolescents defined as those aged 11-21 years and living in families with 1994 income that was at or below the federal poverty level.
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