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Economic Well-Being - Measurement Problems

age social differences income households aged household

One problem with comparing well-being is that it is difficult to define the unit of analysis. Although our goal might be to define the economic Table 1 Living Arrangements of the Over-65 Population SOURCE: U.S. Census Current Population Survey (2000) well-being of individuals, most individuals live in families or households, and most of our measures of economic well-being are either conceptualized or measured at the household level. Household measures of well-being make it impossible, for example, to compare the economic well-being of wives with that of their husbands. Very little has been done to examine differences in individual well-being within households, and it is usually assumed that resources within the household are shared. Therefore, when comparing differences in economic well-being among the aged, one must account for relationships that exist between economic well-being and the size and structure of households in which older householders exist. Furthermore, we will have to account for the fact that older households live in different "types" of households that the nonaged, making comparisons between the economic well-being of the aged and the non-aged difficult.

Table 1 shows the changes that have taken place with respect to the living arrangements of the aged over the last forty years. The fact that more of the aged live as heads of households than forty years ago (i.e., fewer of them living with relatives that are not their spouse or nonrelatives) indicates an improvement in the economic well-being of the aged. This is because moving in with relatives is often a signal, for an individual of any age, that one's economic well-being is not sufficient to maintain a household of one's -own. When comparing the well-being of the aged to the nonaged with household data, the aged will seem better off than they really are, because such an analysis fails to account for older Americans who choose not to be household heads. These older Americans, whose economic well-being has driven them to live with relatives, for example, are not picked up in the data. However, the data from Table 1 also suggest that this sort of bias decreased over time, so that any comparison of the aged and nonaged over time will underestimate any relative advances the aged make and underestimate any relative declines.

Individual versus household differences aside, one could argue that measuring household consumption, and using that as a measure of economic well-being, addresses both the limitations of the two more common measures while at the same time preserving their benefits. Aside from the problem of accounting for family size and structure, how much a household spends, one could argue, is a good measure of both how they are doing now, and how they expect to be doing in the future, which captures the essence of economic well-being. The problem is that households may have different measures of necessities. The health care example is relevant here—is John better off than Jeff if he spends twice as much on health care, but the same as Jeff on all other goods? Answering "no" to this question condemns consumption as a measure of economic well-being, and is obviously relevant when examining the economic well-being of the aged.

Looking at average measures of well-being does not account for the fact that there is inequality in economic well-being, that is, wide dispersion in the incomes of households, both for the aged and the nonaged. In general, inequality can be measured by comparing the values of certain households in a population. For example, one measure of inequality would be to compare the income level at which 20 percent of American households have less income and 80 percent have greater income (the lower quintile) with that of the income at which 80 percent of households have less income and 20 percent have more (the upper quintile). A distribution where the difference between those two numbers is greater, then, would be the one where income is distributed less equally. Another measure of inequality, where these comparisons are taken to their most extreme, is the Gini Coefficient, which compares not just two households, but all households in describing inequality. The Gini coefficient is calculated by taking the differences between the incomes of every household (this would be n times (n-1) differences for a sample of n households), averaging them, and dividing by two times the average household income. Again, a larger Gini coefficient means that inequality is larger. One of the benefits of the Gini coefficient is that it standardizes inequality to the absolute amount of the variable in question (in the case of the example, income).

Another way to measure the economic well-being of the aged is to compare any measures to those of the nonaged. There are a number of reasons why it is difficult to compare the well-being of older individuals and those who are not old. Economic vulnerability aside, issues of economic necessity need to be considered. In particular, the propensity of older Americans to consume health care services must be considered. Also problematic is the fact that most of our measures are monetary, that is, the ability of the household to purchase goods. Differences in leisure time between the aged and the nonaged are ignored in the tables below.

When thinking about comparing the economic well-being of people at different ages, both income and net worth are incomplete measures. Income underestimates the well-being of older Americans relative to younger Americans, since older Americans tend to have larger asset values to protect them from periods of low income. On the other hand, net worth overestimates the well-being of older Americans relative to younger Americans, because older households must draw a larger portion of their income from net worth.

Income is probably the measure of economic well-being that treats the old and the young "fairest." Ideally, both the old and young will have income—resources flowing into their households over a period of time. For the old, this will be made up mostly of return on investment capital—interest, capital gains, Social Security (which can be viewed as return on past savings, even though it does not really work that way in practice)—while the young are generating income from human capital—earnings. In this way, the life course can be seen as transforming your wealth from human capital into investment capital. For this reason, net worth seems to underestimate the economic well-being of the young— their wealth is still in the form of human capital. Nevertheless, both income and net worth can be used to show inequality within the two groups, and we will also use net worth to show how differences in well-being between the young and old have changed over time.

Table 2 Household Income SOURCE: U.S. Census Current Population Survey (2000)

Economic Well-Being - Changes In Economic Well-being Over Time [next] [back] Economic Well-Being - Access To Resources As A Measure Of Economic Well-being

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