Poor health and social deprivation scores in 570 wards in East Anglia, UK, were much less associated in rural than in urban areas. The deprivation measure most closely related to poor health in the least accessible rural wards was male unemployment, but use of this measure did not remove the urban-rural gradient of association strength. Neither did replacing wards by smaller enumeration districts as the units of analysis. The differences between urban and rural correlations were removed by restricting the comparison to wards with the same unemployment range and combining pairs of rural wards with similar deprivation values. Apparent differences between rural and urban associations are therefore not due to the choice of deprivation indices or census areas but are artifacts of the greater internal variability, smaller average deprivation range and smaller population size of rural small areas. Deprived people with poor health in rural areas are hidden by favourable averages of health and deprivation measures and do not benefit from resource allocations based on area values.