An Odd Ladder to Climb: Socioeconomic Differences Across Levels of Subjective Social Status
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Subjective social status (SSS), a promising measure of social class or standing, is linked robustly to diverse indicators of mental and physical well-being. However, the processes behind SSS remain poorly understood. Socioeconomic status (SES; e.g., education, income, or occupation) is among the strongest predictors of SSS, but when and how much does SES matter for understanding differences between given SSS ranks? Drawing on multiple years of national US data (2010–2014 General Social Survey), I show that a quartic form closely describes relationships between SSS and SES: namely, education, income and occupational attainment increase at the bottom of the SSS ladder (between rungs 1–2 and 3) and before the top (between rungs 5–8), increase more modestly (“plateau”) across other ranks, and decrease markedly at the very top (across rungs 9–10). Auxiliary data on wealth accumulation among older Americans (2005 National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States; MIDUS) replicate the quartic form for education and occupation while also suggesting that high personal net worth (e.g., millionaire status) may help to explain why individuals assign themselves to the very top of the ladder despite holding less education, income or occupational prestige relative to others who rank just below. Additional multinomial analyses showed how probabilities of occupying specific rungs of the SSS ladder shift across levels of SES, confirming that the very top of the ladder is more responsive to gains in personal net worth than to traditional SES measures.