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Soc Sci Med. 2003 Oct;57(8):1463-73.

Exploring relative deprivation: is social comparison a mechanism in the relation between income and health?

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Centre for Health Equity Studies, Stockholm University, Karolinska Institutet, 10691 Stockholm, Sweden.


During the last decade there has been a growing interest in the relation between income and health. The discussion has mostly focused on the individual's relative standing in the income distribution with the implicit understanding that the absolute level of income is not as relevant when the individual's basic needs are fulfilled. This study hypothesises relative deprivation to be a mechanism in the relation between income and health in Sweden: being relatively deprived in comparison to a reference group causes a stressful situation, which might affect self-rated health. Reference groups were formed by combining indicators of social class, age and living region, resulting in 40 reference groups. Within each of these groups a mean income level was calculated and individuals with an income below 70% of the mean income level in the reference group were considered as being relatively deprived. The results showed that more women than men were relatively deprived, but the effect of relative deprivation on self-rated health was more pronounced among men than among women. In order to estimate the importance of the effect of relative income versus the effect of absolute income, some analyses on the effect of relative deprivation on self-rated health were also carried out within different absolute income levels. When restricting the analysis to the lowest 40% of the income span the effect of relative deprivation almost disappeared. Relative deprivation may have a significant relation to health among men. However, for the 40% with the lowest income in the population the effect of relative deprivation on health is considerably reduced, possibly due to the more prominent relation between low absolute income and poor health.

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