Background: Epidemiological studies often require measures of socio-economic position (SEP). The application of principal components analysis (PCA) to data on asset-ownership is one popular approach to household SEP measurement. Proponents suggest that the approach provides a rational method for weighting asset data in a single indicator, captures the most important aspect of SEP for health studies, and is based on data that are readily available and/or simple to collect. However, the use of PCA on asset data may not be the best approach to SEP measurement. There remains concern that this approach can obscure the meaning of the final index and is statistically inappropriate for use with discrete data. In addition, the choice of assets to include and the level of agreement between wealth indices and more conventional measures of SEP such as consumption expenditure remain unclear. We discuss these issues, illustrating our examples with data from the Malawi Integrated Household Survey 2004-5.
Methods: Wealth indices were constructed using the assets on which data are collected within Demographic and Health Surveys. Indices were constructed using five weighting methods: PCA, PCA using dichotomised versions of categorical variables, equal weights, weights equal to the inverse of the proportion of households owning the item, and Multiple Correspondence Analysis. Agreement between indices was assessed. Indices were compared with per capita consumption expenditure, and the difference in agreement assessed when different methods were used to adjust consumption expenditure for household size and composition.
Results: All indices demonstrated similarly modest agreement with consumption expenditure. The indices constructed using dichotomised data showed strong agreement with each other, as did the indices constructed using categorical data. Agreement was lower between indices using data coded in different ways. The level of agreement between wealth indices and consumption expenditure did not differ when different consumption equivalence scales were applied.
Conclusion: This study questions the appropriateness of wealth indices as proxies for consumption expenditure. The choice of data included had a greater influence on the wealth index than the method used to weight the data. Despite the limitations of PCA, alternative methods also all had disadvantages.