Background: There is no standardized approach to comparing socioeconomic status (SES) across multiple sites in epidemiological studies. This is particularly problematic when cross-country comparisons are of interest. We sought to develop a simple measure of SES that would perform well across diverse, resource-limited settings.
Methods: A cross-sectional study was conducted with 800 children aged 24 to 60 months across eight resource-limited settings. Parents were asked to respond to a household SES questionnaire, and the height of each child was measured. A statistical analysis was done in two phases. First, the best approach for selecting and weighting household assets as a proxy for wealth was identified. We compared four approaches to measuring wealth: maternal education, principal components analysis, Multidimensional Poverty Index, and a novel variable selection approach based on the use of random forests. Second, the selected wealth measure was combined with other relevant variables to form a more complete measure of household SES. We used child height-for-age Z-score (HAZ) as the outcome of interest.
Results: Mean age of study children was 41 months, 52% were boys, and 42% were stunted. Using cross-validation, we found that random forests yielded the lowest prediction error when selecting assets as a measure of household wealth. The final SES index included access to improved water and sanitation, eight selected assets, maternal education, and household income (the WAMI index). A 25% difference in the WAMI index was positively associated with a difference of 0.38 standard deviations in HAZ (95% CI 0.22 to 0.55).
Conclusions: Statistical learning methods such as random forests provide an alternative to principal components analysis in the development of SES scores. Results from this multicountry study demonstrate the validity of a simplified SES index. With further validation, this simplified index may provide a standard approach for SES adjustment across resource-limited settings.