The world’s richest country tries to count its poor.
How we measure poverty and inequality influences how we conceptualize these problems and impacts the interventions we suggest to address these issues.
We know that socioeconomic standing (SES) presents a gradient in health outcomes, meaning that income inequality, educational attainment, and occupational class influence our health more than individual factors like blood pressure and smoking status.
Relative measures compare relative differences between groups (Group 1 / Group 2), meaning Group 1 is “X” times more or less likely to develop condition “X”. Absolute measures compare absolute differences between groups (Group 1 - Group 2), meaning Group 1 is “X” percentage points above or below Group 2.
When would be a bad time to use a relative measure? An absolute measure? Think about the scale of the indicator. If the differences are small, the absolute differences will be small, but the relative difference may appear larger (i.e. a jump from 1% to 2% is a 2x relative increase but only a 1% absolute increase, so it can look like there’s twice as much poverty when the absolute increase is only 1%.)
In order to address health inequalities, we must improve SES at the population level. How we measure poverty and inequality helps determine how we respond to these public health issues. Pick your measure wisely.