Socioeconomic Status (SES)

Socioeconomic status (SES) is an economic and social combined total measure of a person’s economic and social position in relation to others, based on income, education, and occupation; however, SES is more commonly used to depict an economic difference in society as a whole. Socioeconomic status is typically broken into three levels (high, middle, and low) to describe the three places a family or an individual may fall in relation to others. Recently, there has been increasing interest from researchers on the subject of economic inequality and its relation to the health of populations.

Socioeconomic status is an important source of health inequity, as there is a very robust positive correlation between socioeconomic status and health. Socioeconomic status in the United States is related to health outcomes. Individuals higher in the social hierarchy, typically, enjoy better health than do those lower in the hierarchy. Low income and education levels have been shown to be strong predictors of a range of physical and mental health problems. These health problems may be due to environmental conditions in living and workspaces, increased levels of stress, lack of access to healthcare, food scarcity or poor nutrition. This correlation suggests that it is not only the poor who tend to be sick when everyone else is healthy, but that there is a continual gradient, from the top to the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, relating status to health.

Education in higher socioeconomic families is typically stressed as more important, both within the household, as well as the local community. In poorer areas, where food, shelter and safety are priority, education often takes a backseat – becomes less of a priority. American youth are particularly at risk for many health and social problems in the United States. Overall, lower socioeconomic status has been linked to chronic stress, heart disease, ulcers, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, certain types of cancer, and premature aging.

Social class in the United States is a controversial issue, having many competing definitions, models, and even disagreements over its very existence. Many Americans believe that in the country there are just three classes: the American rich; the American middle class; the American poor. Most definitions of the social classes in the United States entirely ignore the existence of parallel Black, Hispanic and minorities communities. SES differences in health have long been associated by many Americans as related to poor impulse control, unhealthy habits, and an overall lack of motivation (Braveman, et al, 2010). One difficulty with this oversimplification is that these attitudes reduce poverty (and related problems associated with lower SES) as a problem with the individual rather than a reflection of complex societal components that contribute to poor health and lower life expectancy. The assumption that individual choices and internal control are enough to overcome the impact of poverty further adds to the difficulty impoverished people have in overcoming economic hardships. Educational, economic, and health care inequity within lower SES groups have each been shown to correlate with poor health must be addressed in order to create meaningful change in the health of Americans (Braveman, et al, 2010). Given the ranking of the United States across global indicators, we might do well to address poor health of Americans as a social problem and not a personal problem.


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Culture and Psychology Copyright © 2020 by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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