Background Influence

Relative deprivation and inequality

Parent construct: Poverty

Poverty is especially harmful in societies that have great differences between the wealthiest and poorest people. Despite the fact that the United States is a wealthy country, the gap between rich and poor is higher here than in most economically developed countries.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett 1 provide an overview of the relationship between economic inequality and various measures of health and wellbeing. Countries that have inequality in wealth have higher levels of health and social problems. They have lower life expectancy, lower levels of trust, higher rates of mental illness and obesity, poorer school performance, more teenage births, more homicides, higher imprisonment rates, and less social mobility. The U.S. is highest on inequality among developed nations and is also the highest on an index of all these problems.

The nations that have the least inequality are Japan, and the Scandinavian countries. They achieve equality in quite different ways. Japan simply does not pay its highest paid workers (upper management, etc.) a lot more than they pay the lowest paid workers, while the Scandinavian countries have large pay differences, but us taxes to redistribute wealth.

Inequality harms the wealthiest members of society as well as the poorest. The life expectancy for the wealthiest people in Sweden it higher than it is for those in England, which has much greater inequality.


  1. Wilkinson R., & Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. London: Bloomsbury Press.