Journal Article

Perception has its own reality: Subjective versus objective measures of economic distress

Widening economic inequality has heightened concerns about its potential health and social consequences, which may be affected by both objective and subjective aspects of inequality. Yet, socioeconomic disparities are typically measured by objective criteria without considering subjective measures. Here, we quantify widening socioeconomic disparities in perceived economic distress since the mid-1990s, determine the extent to which growing disparities in perceptions can be explained by changes in objective measures, and investigate whether there is a racial/ethnic differential in perceptions net of objective circumstances. Our results suggest that disparities in perceived financial strain and employment uncertainty widened even more than expected based on changes in objective conditions. That is, perceptions among those at lower socioeconomic levels diverged from objective measures more than among those at higher socioeconomic status. As predicted by reference group theory, given the same objective economic and employment conditions, non-Latino whites reported more financial strain than minorities.

Published in a peer-reviewed journal of the Population Council.