Constructing a Time-Invariant Measure of the Socio-Economic Status of U.S. Census Tracts

Published in: Journal of Urban Health, v. 93, no. 1, Feb. 2016, p. 213-232

Posted on RAND.org on April 14, 2016

by Jeremy N. V. Miles, Margaret Weden, Diana Catherine Lavery, Jose J. Escarce, Kathleen A. Cagney, Regina A. Shih

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Contextual research on time and place requires a consistent measurement instrument for neighborhood conditions in order to make unbiased inferences about neighborhood change. We develop such a time-invariant measure of neighborhood socio-economic status (NSES) using exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses fit to census data at the tract level from the 1990 and 2000 U.S. Censuses and the 2008-2012 American Community Survey. A single factor model fit the data well at all three time periods, and factor loadings--but not indicator intercepts--could be constrained to equality over time without decrement to fit. After addressing remaining longitudinal measurement bias, we found that NSES increased from 1990 to 2000, and then--consistent with the timing of the "Great Recession"--declined in 2008-2012 to a level approaching that of 1990. Our approach for evaluating and adjusting for time-invariance is not only instructive for studies of NSES but also more generally for longitudinal studies in which the variable of interest is a latent construct.

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