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Comparison of individual-level versus area-level socioeconomic measures in assessing health outcomes of children in Olmsted County, Minnesota

Abstract

Background Socioeconomic status (SES) is an important determinant of health, but SES measures are frequently unavailable in commonly used datasets. Area-level SES measures are used as proxy measures of individual SES when the individual measures are lacking. Little is known about the agreement between individual-level versus area-level SES measures in mixed urban–rural settings.

Methods We identified SES agreement by comparing information from telephone self-reported SES levels and SES calculated from area-level SES measures. We assessed the impact of this agreement on reported associations between SES and rates of childhood obesity, low birth weight <2500 g and smoking within the household in a mixed urban–rural setting.

Results 750 households were surveyed with a response rate of 62%: 51% male, 89% Caucasian; mean child age 9.5 years. Individual-level self-reported income was more strongly associated with all three childhood health outcomes compared to area-level SES. We found significant disagreement rates of 22–31%. The weighted Cohen's κ indices ranged from 0.15 to 0.22, suggesting poor agreement between individual-level and area-level measures.

Conclusion In a mixed urban–rural setting comprised of both rural and urbanised areas, area-level SES proxy measures significantly disagree with individual SES measures, and have different patterns of association with health outcomes from individual-level SES measures. Area-level SES may be an unsuitable proxy for SES when individual rather than community characteristics are of primary concern.

  • Smoking
  • Birth Weight
  • Obesity
  • Socio-Economic
  • Research Methods
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