Standard of Living

We always want what we can't have. But what if some of us can't have the basic means of survival?

Standard of Living Standard of Living

Create learning materials about Standard of Living with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents
    • In this explanation, we'll be looking at the concept of 'standard of living'.
    • We'll start with a definition of the term, followed by a short explanation on the difference between 'quality of life' and 'standard of living'.
    • Next, we'll look at the various factors involved in determining the standard of living, followed by a glance at the general standard of living in the United States.
    • After this, we'll take a look at whether there have been any improvements in the American standard of living in recent years.
    • Finally, we'll look at the importance of the standard of living in two key ways: firstly, as an indicator of life chances, and secondly, as a subject of inquiry to understand social inequalities.

    Standard of Living Definition

    According to Merriam-Webster (n.d.), standard of living can be defined as "the necessities, comforts, and luxuries enjoyed or aspired to by an individual or group"1.

    In other words, we can understand standard of living as the wealth that is available to particular socioeconomic groups. The wealth that is referred to in this definition specifically speaks to whether these groups can afford the resources that are necessary to maintaining their lifestyle(s).

    Standard of Living vs Quality of Life

    The difference between the concepts of 'standard of living' and 'quality of life' is important to take note of. This is because, while there are some conceptual overlaps, the terms shouldn't actually be used interchangeably.

    • As we now know, standard of living refers to the wealth, necessities and comforts that are either held (or aspired to) by a particular social group.

    • Quality of life is a more subjective indicator of - well - one's quality of life. The World Health Organization (2012) defines this as "an individual's perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns"2.

    The WHO's definition of quality of life is quite packed. Let's break it down...

    • The phrase "an individual's perception" shows that quality of life is a subjective (rather than an objective) measure. It concerns how people view their own lives, rather than their life chances in terms of their occupation or wealth.

    • To place this perception "in the context of the culture and value systems" is an important sociological task. This helps us understand people's behaviors and actions, in terms of how closely they are linked with the expectations of the wider community.

    • To consider the individual's perception "in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns" is also very important. This is because it helps us understand how the individual feels about where they are, as compared to whether they 'should' be. For instance, if the community where someone lives emphasizes material success, that person might feel they have a low quality of life if they do not have many material possessions.

    Standard of Living Factors

    When examining the standard of living, we can turn to factors including (but not limited to):

    • income,

    • poverty rates,

    • employment,

    • social class, and

    • affordability of commodities (like housing and cars).

    In sum, an individual or group's standard of living is generally tied to their wealth. This is why, in conversations about living standards, we often see the markers of net worth.

    Standard of Living, bank notes, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Standard of living is closely linked to wealth.

    We also tend to see the factor of occupation be linked to standards of living. This is because, besides the income and wealth that is attached to certain occupations, we also need to consider the aspect of status and its link with standard of living.

    Holders of high-earning jobs such as lawyers, medical professionals or professional athletes afford high levels of status and prestige. Further down the spectrum, teachers are afforded general respect, but not much prestige. At the lowest end of the spectrum, low-paying, manual work such as waitressing and taxi driving are poorly ranked, and provide low standards of living.

    Standard of Living in the United States

    Keeping these factors in mind, we can identify a general trend of inequality in American standards of living - the country's wealth is very unevenly spread.

    In other words, a small fraction of the population has access to the highest standard(s) of living. According to (2022)3:

    • In 2019, the world's richest American is worth 21 times larger than the richest American was in 1982.

    • Since the 1990s, America's richest families have substantially increased in their net worth. At the same time, families at the bottom of the class structure have reached a state of negative wealth. This is when their debts outweigh their assets.

    These statistics debunk the assumption that America is a 'middle-class society'. While many believe that the U.S. has a relatively small population of very rich and very poor people, but this is far from true. Millions of people struggle to pay rent, find work and afford necessities such as food and shelter.

    On the other hand, the wealthiest in society take up the best resources, such as education, healthcare and other material goods.

    Standard of Living Improvements in the US

    Up to before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was relatively easy to identify sparse improvements in the general standard of living in the United States. Unfortunately, it is now clearer than ever before just how little improvement there has been. We can see this by looking at the decline of the middle class, which has been occurring since the 1970s.

    For example, the pandemic alone has been a time of major health and economic suffering for most people around the world. However, in the period between March 2020 and October 2021, the combined wealth of American billionaires grew by $2.071 trillion (, 2022)3.

    However, some suggest that the case of inequality in the United States is better than we may think. Specifically, they argue that there have been improvements in various economic areas, such women's labor force participation. They look to such areas of improvement to show that, most often, Americans experience relative poverty, as opposed to absolute poverty.

    Absolute poverty is a fixed measure of living standards which indicates that people have less than what they need to afford their basic means of survival. Relative poverty occurs when people's wealth or net worth is comparatively less than the country's average standards.

    There have been some measures to combat inequalities in life chances, put forth by the government and other grassroots organizations. One of the most famous examples of such welfare programs is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program.

    This was introduced by President Kennedy in 1961 and formalized into the Food Stamp Act by President Johnson in 1964. The aim of the food stamp program was to deal with surplus supplies in non-wasteful ways. To this end, food stamps both improved the agricultural economy and improved nutrition levels in low-income households.

    Standard of Living: Importance

    As we have seen, standard of living is directly linked to wealth, income and status. From this, we can infer that standard of living is also closely linked to life chances.

    According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology, the concept of life chances refers to"the access that an individual has to valued social and economic goods such as education, health care or high income" (Dillon, 2006, p.338)4.

    This demonstrates the importance of the standard of living, as it both impacts and is impacted by life chances.

    Standard of Living, school girl writing on chalkboard, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Life chances, such as health, education and income, both impact and are impacted by standards of living.

    Let's take a look at the relationship between standard of living and education as a life chance. Research shows that living in poverty-stricken conditions can deter our educational success.

    For example, crowded housing makes it difficult to find a space to concentrate and study, and it also increases the likelihood of falling ill through proximity and contagiousness of communicable diseases. While there are innumerable other factors to consider, we can also discern that low educational achievement leads to fewer life chances later in life, such as low-paying jobs and lower quality housing. This is evidence of a cycle of poverty, that we can understand by linking life chances with standards of living.

    Inequalities in Living Standards

    Another important aspect of studying living standards is to understand their inequalities. While we've already looked at general inequalities in living standards, there are sociological layers that we need to use to extend our analysis. These layers include social identity markers, like ethnicity and gender.

    Ethnic Inequality in Living Standards

    There is a clear racial divide in wealth in the United States. The average White family owns $147,000. Comparatively, the average Latino family owns 4% of this amount, and the average Black family owns just 2% of this amount (, 2022)3.

    Gender Inequality in Living Standards

    What's also clear in these statistics is a gender divide. As of 2017, American men hold about three times more in retirement savings than women, while women have higher chances of ending up in poverty than men (, 2022)5. Globally, this is a social phenomenon known as the feminization of poverty: women comprise of the majority of impoverished individuals.

    These inequalities become even clearer when we take an intersectional perspective, which shows us that women of color are even worse off than White women when it comes to standards of living. For example, Black women graduate with around $8,000 in debt than White women (

    An intersectional perspective, or intersectionality, is a theoretical framework through which we can layer social identity markers (such as age, gender, ethnicity and social class) to understand differences in lived experiences in more depth.

    Standard of Living - Key takeaways

    • 'Standard of living' refers to the wealth, necessities and comforts that are either held (or aspired to) by a particular social group.
    • 'Quality of life' is a subjective indicator of living standards in context of societal values and individual goals.
    • An individual or group's standard of living is generally tied to their wealth.
    • Wealth is very unevenly distributed in the United States - a small fraction of the population has access to the highest standard(s) of living.
    • Standard of living is closely linked with life chances, which are best explained when we unpack layers of inequality (such as with reference to age, gender or ethnicity).


    1. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Standard of living.
    2. World Health Organization. (2012). The World Health Organization Quality of Life (WHOQOL).
    3. (2022). Wealth inequality in the United States.
    4. Dillon, M. (2006). Life chances. In B.S. Turner (Ed.), Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology, pp.338-339. Cambridge University Press.
    5. (2022). Gender economic inequality.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Standard of Living

    How is standard of living measured?

    There are several factors involved in determining standard of living, such as income, employment, and affordability of basic commodities. 

    What is standard of living?

    According to Merriam-Webster (n.d.), standard of living can be defined as "the necessities, comforts, and luxuries enjoyed or aspired to by an individual or group".

    Why does standard of living increase as productivity improves?

    It can be said that standard of living increases as poverty improves because more work leads to a better-functioning and more profitable economy. However, this link doesn't consider important structural barriers which often stop people from earning their fair share of wages, or from being able to work at all. 

    What are examples of standards of living?

    We can understand standard of living by examining factors such as housing, education levels or general health.

    Why is standard of living important?

    Standard of living is important because it is closely linked with our life chances and outcomes. An in-depth analysis of standards of living also reveals structural inequalities of wealth and opportunity. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What type of indicator is 'quality of life'?

    In the United States, most of the population has access to the highest standards of living. True or false?

    In 2019, the world's richest American is worth __ times larger than the richest American was in 1982.

    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Standard of Living Teachers

    • 10 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App