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Errors in Recalling Childhood Socio-economic Status: The Role of Anchoring and Household Formation in South Africa


In the absence of longitudinal data that track individuals over an extended period of time, information on childhood socio-economic status can be provided by questions that ask adults to recall their parents’ education or their economic status at childhood. The usefulness of these data, however, requires that people are willing to report this information, and that these reports do not vary systematically over time, for example in response to changes in current circumstances. In this paper, we evaluate recall data for South Africa, collected from the same adults in the first two waves of a national panel survey. We show that the data, particularly on father’s education, are compromised by very low and selective response, reflecting the fragmented nature of many South African families. Among those who do provide information, parental education is reported more consistently over time than the subjective appraisals of childhood economic status. However, we find also that both sets of indicators are sensitive to changes in current income, which would be consistent with anchoring effects. Furthermore changes in subjective appraisals of the past are highly correlated with changes in subjective appraisals of the present.

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  1. 1.

    Moreover, it is not clear what domain of childhood is measured by parental attributes. Harper et al. (2002), for instance, suggest that parental education measures the child's intellectual environment, while parental occupation measures the material environment during childhood. Each is a measure of one facet of childhood socio-economic status. The former is potentially more suitable to assess the path of education decisions over the life cycle, while the latter attribute affects the financial position of households and credit constraints that influence future choices. The latter measure may also be more suitable to measure intergenerational as opposed to life course mobility, as illustrated by Piraino (2015).

  2. 2.

    This is also done to eliminate insubstantial anchoring effects at the margin.

  3. 3.

    Where individuals do reside with parents, education is reported by the mother and/or father.

  4. 4.

    Kappa varies from 0 (perfect discordance) to 1 (perfect concordance). Chance agreement is defined as the product of marginal probabilities for respective categories at each rating. Accounting for the eventuality of random agreement makes these statistics relatively conservative in their conclusions about concordance. Nevertheless, most researchers in social and medical sciences refer to kappa statistics to evaluate consistency across ratings.

  5. 5.

    Labour migration has a long history in South Africa, and marriage rates among black South Africans have been declining over several decades. It is therefore possible that a significant share of older adults had not been living with at least one of their parents in childhood. However, some share of older adults will have co-resided with their parents during childhood, and the sample of young adults is therefore likely to represent a select sample of adults.

  6. 6.

    Comparisons across objective and subjective measures are, however, not clear cut, as concordance is also dependent on the number of categories by which each is measured, and the thresholds and distribution of the underlying latent variable that determine the categories. One can expect higher concordance when fewer categories are used, and also where there are high concentrations of respondents within particular bins.

  7. 7.

    While kappa statistics are lowest for the least educated, the proportions of agreement are highest among this group. This discrepancy is because of the high probability of random agreement across time.


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The authors thank an anonymous reviewer for very constructive comments received on the paper. Dorrit Posel acknowledges the Research Chairs Initiative of the South African Department of Science and Technology and South African National Research Foundation for funding her work as the Research Chair in Economic Development.

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Correspondence to Dieter von Fintel.

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von Fintel, D., Posel, D. Errors in Recalling Childhood Socio-economic Status: The Role of Anchoring and Household Formation in South Africa. Soc Indic Res 126, 119–140 (2016).

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  • Retrospective data
  • Socio-economic status
  • Childhood reach
  • Anchoring