Socioeconomic Status

Socioeconomic Status Definition

Socioeconomic status (SES) is an indicator of an individual’s social and economic standing in society and often is determined by a combination of ratings on occupational status, income level, and education. Individuals with low SES ratings tend to have low-status occupations, such as service industry jobs; income at or below the poverty level; and low levels of formal education. These individuals have limited access to the kinds of financial, educational, and social resources that could promote their own health and well-being and that of their families.

Socioeconomic StatusIndividuals with high SES ratings are likely to work in prestigious positions, such as in medicine or law; have higher salaries; and have more advanced education. These individuals have greater access to resources that can contribute to their success and to the perpetuation of similar benefits for their families.

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Socioeconomic Status Importance

Low socioeconomic status has been associated with a variety of negative developmental and social outcomes, especially for children. For example, low SES is associated with health problems, such as premature birth, low birth weight, respiratory illnesses, and iron deficiencies in children.

Children in low-SES households are more likely to be exposed to tobacco, less likely to have adequate nutrition, less likely to be immunized, and less likely to receive high-quality health care than their higher SES peers. These conditions also affect the health of adults, with women living in poverty being more likely than their higher SES counterparts to suffer from disease, chronic health conditions, and disabilities.

Low SES also is associated with lower academic performance and IQ scores for children. Low-SES parents likely have limited access to high-quality books, libraries, and schools for their children, and they may provide fewer enriching educational opportunities for their children to develop their intellectual skills. Teachers also may unknowingly contribute to the lower academic performance of these children, by subtly conveying their low expectations in a way that actually undermines performance. Ultimately, a low-SES child’s poor performance may confirm the teacher’s original negative expectation, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some experts think the causation goes in the opposite direction, that low IQ (which they regard as genetically determined) causes people to end up with low SES.

Low SES also has been linked with maladaptive social functioning. Children and adolescents growing up in low-SES households exhibit more aggressive and delinquent behavior, and both low SES children and adults have a higher likelihood of suffering from psychological disorders, such as depression.

Moreover, individuals with limited financial resources likely have more difficulty finding and receiving appropriate, affordable, and effective mental health treatment, further limiting their functioning.

Low SES often co-occurs with minority, recent immigrant, and disability status; single-parent households; and exposure to violence, making low-SES individuals frequent targets of prejudice. People may assume that low SES reflects personal failings, without considering possible societal constraints. This assumption may undermine their willingness to help low-SES individuals improve their social standing, further perpetuating a cycle of social inequality.


  • Bradley, R. H., & Corwyn, R. F. (2002). Socioeconomic status and child development. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 371-399.