SEATTLE — The difference between an inequality and an inequity is not one of semantics. The future of social progress necessitates conceding that many of the world’s greatest challenges — be it poverty, corruption, or hunger — are tied to preventable social conditions.
At the core, inequalities simply refer to unbalanced conditions, although they are often used to describe unfair circumstances. For example, describing “gender inequality” in technical terms moves to illustrate that not all genders are treated equally in society.
On the other hand, inequity refers to the state of being unfair or unjust. This would mean that gender inequality is the result of a social inequity, or societal condition which creates unfairness in gender norms.
Grammarists explain the difference through another simple scenario: “one might say that income inequality results from inequity in society.” In other words, the difference in incomes spread among a population is the result of social conditions that leave some groups with lower socioeconomic status than others.
These grammatical nuances help explain that inequities have an unhealthy relationship with social conditions. The World Health Organization explains that, in terms of health, “there is ample evidence that social factors, including education, employment status, income level, gender and ethnicity, have a marked influence on how healthy a person is.” These differences in health can not simply be described as inequalities, as they are tied to unjust societal nuances.
The Difference Between the Two
This reveals the crucial difference between an inequality and an inequity: inequities are preventable. The World Health Organization includes this as part of its “Key Concepts” page, noting that inequities are avoidable. The same source explains that no matter the location, people of the lowest socioeconomic status experience the worse health, lending to a universal inequity.
But what does this look like in the real world? A prevalent example of a health inequity stands with child mortality rates: the rate of children dying under the age of five is 11 times greater in low income countries than high income countries. Inequities are also responsible for the fact that 99 percent of global maternal deaths take place in developing countries.
Inequities are worldwide, but they also exist within smaller-scale levels of society. For example, the United States is considered a developed country, yet there are significant levels of health inequities that disproportionately impact marginalized groups. Although there is no genetic marker for it, African Americans experience nearly half of national HIV infections. However, they only represent 13 percent of the American population, suggesting they are disproportionately affected by a preventable inequity.
Life expectancy helps paint another telltale inequity. Indigenous groups in Australia have a life expectancy of 59.4 years for men and 64.8 for women; these numbers jump to 76.6 and 82 for non-indigenous Australians. Around the world, there is a 34 year gap in life expectancy among different countries.
Health inequities are not only costly to individuals’ well-beings, but also to economies. According to the World Bank, health inequities generate an average of 1.4 percent loss in GDP every year within the European Union. This is largely caused by preventable losses in taxes, welfare, healthcare and productivity.
Better understanding that these and other social conditions cause unfair levels of wellbeing in society marks a stop in the path to sustainable development. Ultimately, the silver lining lies in knowing that understanding the difference between an inequality and an inequity can advocate for change.
The World Health Organization explains that “health inequities are unfair and could be reduced by the right mix of governmental policies,” alongside better acknowledgment of the factors that perpetuate inequities. This begs the question: should health and wellbeing be determined by factors like race, income or gender?
– Cleo Krejci