Measuring Socioeconomic Status
Another serious challenge comes in studies over the life course. Since it is possible, if not probably, that any given measure of SES may change over the life course without the latent SES changing at all, it is difficult to say anything about the impact SES has at one stage of life on an outcome (e.g., health) at another. Consider the theoretical aim of the CAPSES measure described above. Taking a snap-shot of SES at one point in time and using it to explain subsequent changes in a dynamic environment is difficult. Beyond the cohort effects of, say, the meaning of educational attainment across generations, the problem of SES over a given person’s life course remains unsolved.
In sum, I urge the reader interested in measuring and studying SES to avoid the most fatal of inferential mistakes, which is to claim that SES has been “adjusted” for. Since SES is always mismeasured, residual confounding is always a problem. Inferences may be profoundly biased and/or misleading in such cases. It is fair to claim that, say, annual household income or highest level of familial education has been adjusted for, but this is far short of saying (all of) SES has been. Indeed, after nearly fifteen years of considering the issues, I close by wondering if scientists should drop the term socioeconomic status altogether. The term socioeconomic status is fun to learn about in seventh grade and certainly helpful in casual language, where shortcuts are expected. But as shown here, the construct is imprecise and debatable for fruitful scientific investigation. It is worth emphasizing that while I wonder if the construct SES should be dropped from scientific discussion, I do not think the construct should be dropped. In fact, I think more attention is needed and wish to state clearly that dropping the idea of SES would be tragic on many levels. Ultimately, I seek a more careful consideration of the all-important construct and a better scientific and policy basic for research and action with it.