Inequality: Causes and Consequences


The 21st century has been characterized by an emphasis on democracy and an upholding of the principle of equality which holds that selection is on a basis of merit.

Equality of opportunity has been pursued with the view of ensuring equal opportunity to all the members of the society. Despite this emphasis on equality, today’s world continues to be plagued by many social inequalities among people. Wilkinson (2005, p.51) suggests that social inequality is positively related to social vices such as homicide and racism and inevitably fosters social instability.

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With this recognition, many governments have sought ways to reduce social inequality in their respective countries. Many political systems have been formulated in a bid to overcome social inequalities with the aim being to eliminate social inequalities by distributing resources in an equitable manner among the members of the society.

Considering the significance that the issue of social inequality holds for the well being of the society, it makes sense to explore the subject of social inequality and highlight its causes. This paper shall set out to report on Social Inequality: causes and consequences. This shall be in a bid to provide a better appreciation of the issue thereby leading to an enhanced understanding of social inequality and how it affects the society.

Causes of Social Inequality

While the 21st century has witnessed an increase in the access to education for most people, education still remains to be a cause for inequality. This is because the quality of the education offered depends on the context of the school or class.

The reason for this is that different schools will therefore offer different qualities of education for varied reasons. Duru-Bellat (2004, p.47) reveals that school have unequal effectiveness especially in countries where there is no minimum level of quality guaranteed. Another effect of education is that it influences a person’s social capital.

Social capital is defined as “a person’s potential to activate and effectively mobilize a network of social connection on mutual recognition of proximity” (OECD, 2001, p.2). Social capital can be uses as private goods by an individual to achieve certain goals. An individual can use his/her accumulated social capital to from this social capital. This inequality is linked by social proximities where people cluster themselves into groups based on some common property.

Careers and jobs have also become a source of status distinction among people. Studies also indicate that the returns to skill (measure of the difference in earnings between more-skilled and less-skilled workers) have changed radically over the past 3 decades.

From the 1980s, there was a heightened increase in the wage differential in the labor market (Ryscavage 1999, p.115). The main differentiating factors were by education or experience. Emphasis on education resulted in higher institutes of learning graduates earning more than similar workers who had only high school diplomas.

Due to this shift, higher wages are paid to workers who are more skilled or occupy management and administrative positions than to workers involved in the manual section of the organization. It follows logically that income gaps attributed to education levels are significant since only a small proportion of the population get to pursue the highest levels of education. This observation implies that children of poorer parents are less likely to become rich in future than children of richer parents.

Globalization has resulted in increased social inequality in developed nations. Globalization is a process characterized by major integration of economies and cultures. This trend is becoming rife and with it a shift in the way business and societies operate. Fligstein (2002, p.206) suggests that globalization is more of a gradual process whose impacts on economies are less revolutionary in nature.

One of the outcomes of globalization is mass immigration as people move in search of job opportunities and better income. The immigrants and their children are disadvantaged as a result of “unequal distance” which exists between their native language and the language of their host country. Duru-Bellat (2004, p.33) asserts that the institutes in the home country are permeated by the culture of dominant groups and therefore, only those who inherit this culture can perform well.

Another cause of social inequality is social stratification which is characterized by grouping people into different social classes. Some people in society are given more power and freedom as a result of their social class. Class stratification results in the society dividing itself into different classes of people mostly on the basis of economic wellbeing.

The members of different classes have varying access to resources and power therefore creating a rift between the various classes. Dragos and Leskosek (2003) rightfully state that individuals with various characteristics do not start their lives in neutral or unstructured environments but rather, they are flung by education or even birth into various social spaces. These social spaces in some instances determine the opportunities that are available to them and therefore their achievements later in life.

Social inequality also occurs as a result of the gender of a person. The cause of this kind of inequality is mostly as a result of the dual roles of paid and unpaid workers that most women play in a capitalistic world. Male dominance results in women playing second roles since gendered job segregation results in males maintaining superiority over the women (Goldthorpe, 2009). In some countries, women are considered second class citizens and their economic options are significantly decreased therefore making them dependent on the men.


Research suggests that social inequality may be a significant determinant of health. This is mainly because inequality results to a great difference in access to resources across the community which results in greater differences in health across communities. Health care acquisition thereby becomes almost an unattainable affair for the low earners since the cost of health care and a healthy lifestyle becomes more expensive in the community.

Berkman and Kawachi (2000) articulate that social inequality leads to lack of solidarity and social cohesion thereby dramatically decreasing life expectancy also, the socioeconomic position of an individual has a direct relationship to their risk of heart disease and other lifestyle related illnesses. These assertions borrow from the psychosocial environment interpretations which theorize that inequality produces a social environment that ultimately affects the individual’s health.

The linkage between inequality and crime is especially troubling. Yoonseok and Donggyun (2008) hypothesized that, as the income distribution becomes more bipolarized, the interaction between the two groups from the different sides of the income divide is further minimized.

This in turn lowers both the expected future income of the poorer and their incentive to supply labor in the legal labor market is thus weakened. Findings indicate that the crime incentive for the richer is far lower due to high income while it remains heightened for the poorer (Yoonseok and Donggyun 2008).

This is because individuals feel more frustrated when they belong to the low income group than high income group. This leads to antagonism by the low earners to the high earners which lead to the propagation of crime. Wilkinson (2005) also asserts that the relationship between inequality and violence is a robust one and poverty is independently associated with higher levels of violence.

In recent years, studies to indicate the effects of income inequality have been sanctioned. It contended that inequality may hinder the economic growth of a nation (Boix, 2009). In the earlier days, income inequality was indeed a sign of economic growth since it marked the population shift from rural to urban with the urban population earning higher. As such, it was seen as a necessary condition of economic takeoff.

However, Boix (2009) proposes that inequality leads to redistributive demands in the form of heavier tax burdens and lack of incentives for investors which lead to the slowing down of growth. In addition to this, inequality leads to instability to the political system which becomes characterized by riots, assassinations and even outbreak of civil wars. This state discourages investments thereby further plunging a nation into reduced earning.

However, not all the consequences of social inequality are negative in nature and this inequality may result in progress in the society. Bernasek, an economic reporter for the New York Times contends that the effects of income inequality are not inherently adverse (Bernasek, 2006).

She asserts that without inequality, there would be no motivation for anyone to earn more than the rest of the people. However, given the many adverse effects that sprout from social inequality, the virtue of inequality as a motivating factor seems to pale in comparison.

Dragos and Leskosek (2003) go as far as to state that social inequality should not be tolerated by any society since they go against the notion of benefiting everyone and results in disharmony. There is therefore a pressing need to come up with means that alleviate the gap in income thereby leading to a more harmonic society.


Inequality has been universally acknowledged as a major roadblock in the way for economic and social prosperity. This paper set out to outline the causes of social inequality and the consequences that arise from it. To this end, the paper has articulated the issue of social inequality that faces both developing and developed nations alike.

The evidence presented herein suggests that globalization, education and a social stratification are some of the major causes of social inequality. From this paper, it is clear that social inequality has many negative impacts on the society. With recognition that social inequality results in gross injustices, solutions should be looked for to address the problem.

Whereas social equality may never be completely attained, increasing equality is an achievable goal that can be attained should the governments and other relevant institutes diligently measures to deal with the causes of inequality that have been outlined in this paper. A more equitable community will not only be harmonious but will also lead to more industrial growth hence a higher standard of living for most members of the society.


Boix, C 2009, The Conditional Relationship Between Inequality and Development, PS, Political Science & Politics: Research Library Core, ProQuest.

Dragos, S & Leskosek, V 2003, Social Inequality and social capital. Institute for contemporary Social and Political Studies.

Duru-Bellat, M 2004, Social inequality at school and educational policies, UNESCO: International Institute for Educational Planning.

Fligstein, N 2002, The Architecture of Markets: An Economic Sociology of Twenty-first-Century Capitalist Societies, Princeton University Press.

Goldthorpe, J 2009, “Analysing Social Inequality: A Critique of Two Recent Contributions from Economics and Epidemiology”, European Sociological Review, DOI:10.1093/esr/jcp046

OECD, 2001, The Well-being of Nations: The Role of Human and Social Capital. OECD Publishing.

Ryscavage, Paul. “Income inequality in America: an analysis of trends” USA: M.W. Sharpe, 1999. Print.

Wilkinson, G 2005, The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier, Routledge.

Yoonseok, L, & Donggyun S, What Aspect of the Income Distribution Matters in the Crime Model?, Viewed 17 April,


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