Based on longitudinal data from the Swedish population with a mortality follow-up over a 16-year period, including a total of 4.7 million individuals aged 25–64 years, the present study makes a unique contribution to explaining the hypothesized mechanism of relative deprivation in the income-health relation. The primary findings of the present study are that relative income deprivation was significantly associated with premature mortality, irrespective of sociodemographic status, including individual income, and that this association was stronger among men than women. The effect of relative deprivation on mortality was weak among the poorest.
When analyzing relative deprivation as was done here, we do not know which reference groups are the most important. People tend to make a vast number of comparisons, but not all are important to feelings of relative deprivation and not all are important to health. In the present study, we used different types of objectively defined reference groups, all based on the idea that people compare themselves with similar others: same age group, same occupational group, same living region or a combination of these. Our results show an effect of relative deprivation on mortality for most of the tested reference groups, also after adjustments were made. These results resemble findings from previous studies showing relative deprivation to be important, although of different degree, irrespective of how reference groups were formed [5–8, 13]. The Yitzhaki index is a measure of individual-level relative deprivation, albeit linked to income inequality as it is expected to increase with increasing disparities. Previous studies on the relation between income inequalities and health show mixed results, where the most consistent findings was reported in the United States when income distribution was measured at the state level . However, analysing the importance of income inequality in Sweden, a previous study by Gerdtham and Johannesson did not find support for the relation to mortality . Even though relative deprivation is linked to income inequality, the measure of relative deprivation captures individual level psychosocial impacts to a larger extent than for example the Gini index.
In line with previous results, we find that the effect of relative deprivation is more important for men than for women [6–8, 13]. Eibner and Evans restricted their study to include only men, arguing that the measure of relative deprivation is not of equal importance to women due to their lower degree of labour market participation . This could not be an argument in the Swedish context, although there may be other reasons why the measure lacks importance to women. In a study on pay reference standards and pay satisfaction, men were more affected by the national pay reference level and women more by the occupational level . Comparing different measures of relative deprivation also showed that measures more closely related to everyday life and consumption affected women’s health more than measures of objective social status did. In a previous study a measure of self-rated deprivation, measuring a number of consumption items that the individual finds necessary but cannot afford, was found closely related to women’s health . Among men, this is supported by the findings of Wolff and colleagues, showing that comparisons with distal reference groups impact health outcomes .
We also tried to isolate the effect of relative deprivation, over and above the effect of absolute income. The Yitzhaki index calculates the accumulated shortfall between one person’s income compared to all other with a higher income in his or her reference group. Considering this effect within different income strata give us an idea of the importance of social comparisons depending on income level. Among men, we did not find any significant effect of relative deprivation within the lowest income quartile (Table 3). A similar pattern was found in Japan by analysing relative deprivation and incident disability among the elderly , as well as in Sweden for the relation between relative deprivation and self-rated health . It could be argued that psychosocial mechanisms, such as social comparisons, play a larger role when basic material needs are fulfilled. For individuals who are having problems making ends meet, relative deprivation may be of less importance.
The following limitations of the study should be considered. First, the way in which we formed our reference groups could be argued to be objective, thus not reflecting the groups people actually use for making social comparisons. Our data do not include any questions on people’s actual reference groups, rather we have based them on the assumption that people compare themselves to similar others – an argument that has also been used in other studies [5–8, 13]. Based on previous studies, we would argue that our combinations of reference groups are sufficient for the present analyses.
Occupation was classified in accordance with the Swedish Socioeconomic Classification (SEI) and divided into the categories higher non-manual employees, lower non-manual employees, qualified manual workers, unqualified manual workers, self-employed and farmers. The total proportion of individuals who had an unclassifiable profession or had a missing value was 19 %, somewhat higher among women than men. These individuals were excluded from the analyses. This is likely to have impacted the results when using occupation as a reference group and could be one reason why the analysis of top vs. bottom within the lowest quartile showed a lower HR in the crude model when using occupation as a reference group. In the excluded group of people, those with an unclassifiable profession or a missing value, the proportion of individuals with a low income is likely to be higher. However, we performed analyses using different reference groups and all showed a similar pattern, namely that relative income deprivation is significantly associated with mortality.
There are reasons to believe that income inequality has an impact on individual health outcomes, and different mechanisms and explanations within this relation have been discussed [2, 23]. Social comparisons’, generating relative deprivation, has been put forward as one possible mechanism. There are different hypotheses as to the breeding ground for relative deprivation. It has been argued that a context that promotes values of egalitarianism may in turn promote feelings of relative deprivation, as it encourages people to make comparisons with affluent others . It could also be argued that psychosocial mechanisms may be more important in a setting where material deprivation, in an absolute sense, is not as common. However, even though these explanations seem important, this would not be as central for generating relative deprivation as large income disparities in a society.