Income Data for Policy Analysis: A Comparative Assessment of Eight Surveys. The Elderly


The Census Bureau survey estimates of persons 65 and older exceed the MCBS estimates of elderly Medicare beneficiaries by 1.6 to 2.2 million, which can be attributed in large part to including elderly non-beneficiaries in the former (Table IV.37).36 Despite this small difference in size, the distribution of the MCBS population by sex and race/ethnicity corresponds very closely to what we find in the Census Bureau surveys, as does the frequency of persons living alone or with no relative (“single”). Elderly respondents to the Census Bureau surveys are more likely to be living with a spouse (by 3 to 5 percentage points) and less likely to be living with other relatives. Estimates of Medicaid enrollment in 2002, which in the MCBS are based in large part on administrative data, lie between the CPS and SIPP, which suggests that the SIPP estimate may be high. And while a third or more of the CPS and SIPP respondents reported their health status as fair or poor, this was true of only 21 percent of the MCBS sample.


  Percent of Persons
Characteristic CPS ACS SIPP MCBS2
Total Persons 34.22 33.56 33.95 31.99
Male 42.4 42.3 42.3 42.9
Female 57.6 57.7 57.7 57.1
White, non-Hispanic 81.9 82.4 82.7 81.8
Black, non-Hispanic 8.4 8.1 8.0 8.1
Hispanic 6.0 5.7 5.8 6.1
Other 3.8 3.8 3.4 3.9
Family Composition
Single1 33.1 33.5 32.5 33.7
With a spouse only 47.2 47.3 49.3 45.0
With a spouse and others 9.5 9.7 9.2 8.1
With others only 10.1 9.5 9.0 13.1
With SSI 3.5 4.2 6.0 NA
With Medicaid 9.6 NA 14.2 11.6
Health status fair or poor 35.1 NA 33.4 21.3
With inpatient stay NA NA 18.5 21.4

Source:   Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., from 2003 CPS ASEC supplement, the 2002 ACS, the 2001 SIPP panel, and the 2003 MCBS Cost and Use file.

1.Includes persons living with a non-relative
2.Medicare beneficiaries only

The sole MCBS income variable that is reported in dollars represents the income of both the sample beneficiary and spouse, if present. To confirm that spouse incomes were indeed being reported, we calculated per capita income and aggregate income under the assumption that the reported amount applied to the sample beneficiary alone. Under this assumption, the MCBS obtains more aggregate income ($939.8 billion) than any of the Census Bureau surveys, which range from $683.2 billion in SIPP to $796.5 billion in the ACS (Table IV.38). It is readily apparent from the per capita income calculations (aggregate income divided by the number of persons 65 and older) that the MCBS is indeed obtaining income for both the respondent and spouse. The per capita income for persons living with only a spouse is slightly higher than that for singles in the CPS and SIPP but it is nearly double the per capita income for singles in the MCBS:  $39,022 versus $20,661.

Given that the MCBS income data include spouses’ incomes, the incomes of spouses who are Medicare enrollees 65 and older are represented twice (or double-counted, in effect) when the reported incomes of sample members are aggregated. Because the sample members are weighted to the number of Medicare beneficiaries by age, each such spouse is represented by another sample member, and this is what produces the double counting. The survey could eliminate this problem by requesting only the sample member’s income. If the incomes of other family members were collected separately, and the number of other family members were counted as well, then it would also be possible to determine the poverty status of each sample member.

Given the limitations of the MCBS income data, the best way to assess how much income the survey is capturing relative to the Census Bureau surveys is to compare singles across the surveys. From Table IV.38 we see that the per capita income of singles in the MCBS lies between the CPS and SIPP estimates. More specifically, the MCBS estimate is $1,600 above the SIPP estimate and $700 below the CPS estimate. In addition, the MCBS estimate is $2,100 below the ACS estimate.


Millions of Persons
All Persons 34.22 33.56 33.95 31.99
(Family Composition)Singlea 11.34 11.24 11.03 10.79
(Family Composition)With spouse only 16.16 15.88 16.74 14.40
(Family Composition)With spouse and others 3.26 3.26 3.11 2.60
(Family Composition)With others only 3.46 3.17 3.06 4.20
Billions of Dollars
All Persons 730.1 796.5 683.2 939.8
(Family Composition)Single1 242.4 256.0 210.0 222.8
(Family Composition)With spouse only 369.0 420.6 366.7 562.0
(Family Composition)With spouse and others 65.8 65.3 58.7 85.5
With others only 53.0 54.5 47.9 69.5
Income Per Capita
All Persons 21,335 23,732 20,124 29,375
(Family Composition)Single1 21,379 22,777 19,033 20,661
(Family Composition)With spouse only 22,836 26,479 21,901 39,022
(Family Composition)With spouse and others 20,154 20,012 18,844 32,861
(Family Composition)With others only 15,301 17,194 15,639 16,530

Source:  Mathematica Policy Research, from tabulations of calendar year 2002 income from the 2003 CPS ASEC supplement, the 2001 SIPP panel, and the 2003 MCBS Cost and Use file, and prior 12 months income, inflation-adjusted to calendar year 2002, from the 2002 ACS.

1. Includes persons living with a non-relative. b Medicare beneficiaries only.  Income, reported for 2003, has been deflated to 2002 dollars by the CPI-U
2. Medicare beneficiaries only.  Income, reported for 2003, has been deflated to 2002 dollars by the CPI-U.

A comparison of the four surveys with respect to the distribution of singles’ incomes by brackets shows that the MCBS finds somewhat fewer people in the tails ($10,000 or less or $50,001 or more) and somewhat more people in the middle bracket (Table IV.39). For single elderly persons, then, the MCBS income data bear a reasonable resemblance to the data collected in the Census Bureau surveys, but this is a very limited assessment.

View full report


"report.pdf" (pdf, 4.33Mb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®