Measuring Socioeconomic Status

3. What is Socioeconomic Status?

It may surprise some but the fact is that there is no agreed upon definition of SES, and in my view there will never be. This is because the construct necessarily entails political ideologies about existing and desired social structures, and political ideologies and science do not mix well. For the last three decades or so, some scholars have defined SES as equivalent to simple, measurable things such as annual income. Others think race or ethnicity should be included. Some believe health status should be part of an SES measure since SES and health are so highly correlated and clearly cause each other. Few are certain how to assign SES to those not in the labor force, such as children, the elderly, or those who have intentionally dropped out. In sum, for a term that appears to be universally understood and employed it is profoundly ironic that its scientific underpinning is so under-developed.

I maintain that SES is a construct that reflects one’s access to collectively desired resources, be they material goods, money, power, friendship networks, healthcare, leisure time, or educational opportunities (Oakes and Rossi 2003).

It is access to such resources that enables individuals and/or groups to thrive in the social world. Those with higher SES tend to thrive and many aim to improve their SES – or the SES of their offspring – in order to improve their life chances.  Although too often correlated with it, I do not think race or ethnicity are part of one’s SES (Kaufman, Cooper and McGee 1997; Oakes and Rossi 2003). One should be able to improve their SES without changing their phenotype (including skin color) or linguistic accent. Further, I do not think health should be a part of SES, though health certainly affects SES. As with race/ethnicity, incorporating health into SES measures prevents our ability to discuss health outcomes by SES.  Of course, phenomena such as racism disrupts social mobility and is therefore related to SES. Further, it is well established that poor health can cause down-turns in SES.