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J Natl Med Assoc. 2007 September; 99(9): 1013–1023.
PMCID: PMC2575866

Measurement of socioeconomic status in health disparities research.


Socioeconomic status (SES) is frequently implicated as a contributor to the disparate health observed among racial/ ethnic minorities, women and elderly populations. Findings from studies that examine the role of SES and health disparities, however, have provided inconsistent results. This is due in part to the: 1) lack of precision and reliability of measures; 2) difficulty with the collection of individual SES data; 3) the dynamic nature of SES over a lifetime; 4) the classification of women, children, retired and unemployed persons; 5) lack of or poor correlation between individual SES measures; and 6) and inaccurate or misleading interpretation of study results. Choosing the best variable or approach for measuring SES is dependent in part on its relevance to the population and outcomes under study. Many of the commonly used compositional and contextual SES measures are limited in terms of their usefulness for examining the effect of SES on outcomes in analyses of data that include population subgroups known to experience health disparities. This article describes SES measures, strengths and limitations of specific approaches and methodological issues related to the analysis and interpretation of studies that examine SES and health disparities.

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