An Introduction to Socioeconomic Status

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Socioeconomic status (SES) is a term used by sociologists, economists, and other social scientists to describe the class standing of an individual or group. It is measured by a number of factors, including income, occupation, and education, and it can have either a positive or negative impact on a person's life. 

Who Uses SES?

Socioeconomic data is gathered and analyzed by a wide range of organizations and institutions.

Federal, state, and local governments all use such data to determine everything from tax rates to political representation. The U.S. Census is one of the best-known means of collecting SES data. Nongovernmental organizations and institutions like the Pew Research Center also collect and analyze such data, as do private companies like Google. But in general, when SES is discussed, it's in the context of social science.

Primary Factors

There are three main factors that social scientists use to calculate socioeconomic status:

  • Income: This is how much a person earns, including wages and salaries, as well as other forms of income such as investments and savings. The definition of income is sometimes expanded to include inherited wealth and intangible assets as well.
  • Education: A person's level of education has a direct impact on their earning ability, with higher earning power leading to more educational opportunities that in turn increase future income potential.
  • Occupation: This factor is more difficult to assess because of its subjective nature. White-collar professions that require a high degree of skilled training, such as physicians or lawyers, tend to require more education and thus return more income than many blue-collar jobs.

This data is used to determine the level of one's SES, usually classified as low, middle, and high.

But a person's true socioeconomic status doesn't necessarily reflect how a person sees him or herself. Although most Americans would describe themselves as "middle class," regardless of their actual income, data from the Pew Research Center shows that only about half of all Americans are truly "middle class."

Impact

The SES of an individual or group can have a profound influence on people's lives. Researchers have pinpointed several factors that can be affected, including:

  • Physical health: Communities with low socioeconomic status in the U.S. have higher rates of infant mortality, obesity, and cardiovascular health issues. 
  • Mental health: Along with poor physical health, communities with low SES report more cases of depression, suicide, drug abuse, behavioral and developmental issues.
  • General health and welfare: Along with the impact on an individual's well being, socioeconomic status can also have an impact on communities, including rates of crime and poverty.

Oftentimes, communities of racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. feel the effects of low socioeconomic status most directly. People who have physical or mental disabilities, as well as the elderly, are also particularly vulnerable populations.

Resources and Further Reading

"Children, Youth, Families and Socioeconomic Status."  American Psychological Association. Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.

Fry, Richard, and Kochhar, Rakesh. "Are You in the American Middle Class? Find Out with Our Income Calculator." PewResearch.org. 11 May 2016.

Tepper, Fabien. " What is Your Social Class? Take Our Quiz to Find Out!" The Christian Science Monitor. 17 Oct. 2013.

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Crossman, Ashley. "An Introduction to Socioeconomic Status." ThoughtCo, Dec. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/socioeconomic-status-3026599. Crossman, Ashley. (2017, December 3). An Introduction to Socioeconomic Status. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/socioeconomic-status-3026599 Crossman, Ashley. "An Introduction to Socioeconomic Status." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/socioeconomic-status-3026599 (accessed January 22, 2018).