The Effects of Socioeconomic Status on Child and Adolescent Physical Health: An Organization and Systematic Comparison of Measures

Academic Article


  • Prior research has established a link between SES and early life health without providing clear theoretical or empirical evidence for using any particular conceptualization or operationalization of SES. Researchers refer to almost any combination of variables related to families’ economic, educational, or occupational circumstances as SES. This abundance of operationalizations makes it difficult to determine how exactly SES shapes early life health. Childhood and adolescence are unique periods of life delineated by extensive social, psychological, and physical transitions. Although these changes may make children and adolescents sensitive to different aspects of SES, research has yet to systematically compare an array of SES measures extensive enough to rigorously examine this possibility. To address this gap, I merge the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) and the NLSY79 Children and Young Adults datasets. In analyses, I consider multiple operationalizations of SES derived from the distinct components conceptualization of SES. I find that the best model of SES and early life health includes family income, wealth, education, and occupational prestige. Family income and wealth play especially important roles in early life health but also impact child and adolescent health differently. Children’s health is more vulnerable to their families’ wealth, while adolescents’ health is more sensitive to their families’ current income. Together, the countervailing effects of family income and wealth negate one another such that the overall effect of economic conditions on health is the same for children and adolescents. My findings provide evidence that future research should carefully consider multiple measures of SES when studying the relationship between SES and early life health.
  • Authors

    Digital Object Identifier (doi)

    Author List

  • Wolfe JD
  • Start Page

  • 39
  • End Page

  • 58
  • Volume

  • 123
  • Issue

  • 1