Income non-reporting: implications for health inequalities research

G Turrell
Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 2000, 54 (3): 207-14

OBJECTIVES: To determine whether, in the context of a face to face interview, socioeconomic groups differ in their propensity to provide details about the amount of their personal income, and to discuss the likely consequences of any differences for studies that use income based measures of socioeconomic position.

DESIGN AND SETTING: The study used data from the 1995 Australian Health Survey. The sample was selected using a stratified multi-stage area design that covered urban and rural areas across all States and Territories and included non-institutionalised residents of private and non-private dwellings. The response rate was 91.5% for selected dwellings and 97.0% for persons within dwellings. Data were collected using face to face interviews. Income response, the dependent measure, was binary coded (0 if income was reported and 1 for refusals, "don't knows" and insufficient information). Socioeconomic position was measured using employment status, occupation, education and main income source. The socioeconomic characteristics of income non-reporters were initially examined using sex specific age adjusted proportions with 95% confidence intervals. Multivariate analysis was performed using logistic regression.

PARTICIPANTS: Persons aged 15-64 (n = 33,434) who were reportedly in receipt of an income from one or more sources during the data collection reference period.

RESULTS: The overall rate of income non-response was 9.8%. Propensity to not report income increased with age (15-29 years 5.8%, 30-49 10.6%, 50-64 13.8%). No gender differences were found (men 10.2%, women 9.3%). Income non-response was not strongly nor consistently related to education or occupation for men, although there was a suggested association among these variables for women, with highly educated women and those in professional occupations being less likely to report their income. Strong associations were evident between income non-response, labour force status and main income source. Rates were highest among the employed and those in receipt of an income from their own business or partnership, and lowest among the unemployed and those in receipt of a government pension or benefit (which excluded the unemployed).

CONCLUSION: Given that differences in income non-reporting were small to moderate across levels of the education and occupation variables, and that propensity to not report income was greater among higher socioeconomic groups, estimates of the relation between income and health are unlikely to be affected by socioeconomic variability in income non-response. Probability estimates from a logistic regression suggested that higher rates of income non-reporting among employed persons who received their income from a business or partnership were not attributable to socio-economic factors. Rather, it is proposed that these higher rates were attributable to recall effects, or concerns about having one's income information disclosed to taxation authorities. Future studies need to replicate this analysis to determine whether the results can be inferred to other survey and data collection contexts. The analysis should also be extended to include an examination of the relation between socio-economic position and accuracy of income reporting. Little is known about this issue, yet it represents a potential source of bias that may have important implications for studies that investigate the association between income and health.

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