What’s the Difference Between Equity and Equality?

Posted November 20, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Overlapping, multicolored human illustrations in silhouette.

Well-mean­ing peo­ple often use the terms equi­ty” and equal­i­ty” inter­change­ably when dis­cussing mat­ters relat­ed to race and social jus­tice. While both terms have to do with fair­ness,” there are key dif­fer­ences as the appli­ca­tion of one over the oth­er may lead to dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent out­comes. Equal­i­ty requires that every­one receives the same resources and oppor­tu­ni­ties, regard­less of cir­cum­stances and despite any inher­ent advan­tages or dis­ad­van­tages that apply to cer­tain groups. Equi­ty, on the oth­er hand, con­sid­ers the spe­cif­ic needs or cir­cum­stances of a per­son or group and pro­vides the types of resources need­ed to be successful.

Equal­i­ty assumes that every­body is oper­at­ing at the same start­ing point and will face the same cir­cum­stances and chal­lenges. Equi­ty rec­og­nizes the short­com­ings of this one-size-fits-all” approach and under­stands that dif­fer­ent lev­els of sup­port must be pro­vid­ed to achieve fair­ness in outcomes.

A high­ly cir­cu­lat­ed image seeks to pro­vide a visu­al illus­tra­tion of the dif­fer­ences between equal­i­ty and equi­ty. The image depicts three peo­ple stand­ing behind a fence, watch­ing a base­ball game. The three indi­vid­u­als are all dif­fer­ent heights, with the tallest of the three being able to see over the fence with­out any help. The oth­er two are not tall enough to see over. Equal­i­ty pro­vides each of these peo­ple with iden­ti­cal box­es to stand on to peer over the fence. The tallest per­son, who didn’t need the box in the first place, now stands even high­er, con­tin­u­ing to enjoy a per­fect view of the game. The sec­ond per­son can now see over the fence, and the third per­son, even with the help of the box, is still too short to see over.

The image also depicts what equi­ty would look like in this same sce­nario. In the equi­ty ver­sion, the tallest per­son does not receive a box and is still able to enjoy the game. The sec­ond per­son is giv­en one box to stand on, and the third per­son is giv­en two box­es to stand on. Now, all three can enjoy the same view of the game.

Equity vs Equality

Equal­i­ty vs. Equi­ty Examples

Insti­tu­tions like the nation’s pub­lic health and edu­ca­tion sys­tems pro­vide some of the stark­est exam­ples of equi­ty and equal­i­ty in action and the vast­ly dif­fer­ent out­comes they affect. While equal­i­ty in health care” may sound noble, it is only equi­ty in health care that takes into account social injus­tices and pro­vides addi­tion­al resources to the indi­vid­u­als who need them.

Pro­grams in Action: Health Equi­ty in Miami

There are count­less exam­ples of inequity and inequal­i­ty play­ing out in real life, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the fields of edu­ca­tion and health care. Recent­ly the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion sup­port­ed efforts to increase health equi­ty in Mia­mi. Dur­ing the height of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, a com­mu­ni­ty part­ner orga­ni­za­tion — which was a mem­ber of the Foun­da­tion’s Results Count hub pro­gram — con­sid­ered adopt­ing a vac­cine pro­mo­tion strat­e­gy that would direct local res­i­dents to CVS phar­ma­cies to receive inoc­u­la­tions. But since the goal was to pro­vide pos­i­tive health out­comes for all res­i­dents, a clos­er look at this strat­e­gy revealed its flaws. There were no CVS phar­ma­cies locat­ed in pre­dom­i­nant­ly Black and Lati­no neigh­bor­hoods, and trans­porta­tion bar­ri­ers would make it near­ly impos­si­ble for many of these res­i­dents to access the vac­cines. With equi­ty in mind, the strat­e­gy was com­plete­ly reimag­ined, and com­mu­ni­ty part­ners col­lab­o­rat­ed on the mobile dis­tri­b­u­tion of vac­cines through­out areas with Black and Lati­no residents.

Pro­grams in Action: Racial Equi­ty in Bal­ti­more Schools

To advance equi­ty in edu­ca­tion, Casey sup­ports pro­grams like Bal­ti­more City Pub­lic Schools REACH fel­low­ship. REACH, which stands for Results in Edu­ca­tion to Accel­er­ate Change,” is a lead­er­ship devel­op­ment pro­gram that seeks to bol­ster racial con­scious­ness and an aware­ness of sys­temic inequities. By instill­ing such a mind­set in its par­tic­i­pants, REACH equips future lead­ers with the tools need­ed to advance equi­ty. A focus on equal­i­ty — rather than equi­ty — would not call for such a con­cen­trat­ed focus on racial or sys­temic inequities.

Address­ing Inequity: Addi­tion­al Resources

To advance its mis­sion of strength­en­ing fam­i­lies and ensur­ing access to oppor­tu­ni­ty, the Casey Foun­da­tion is ded­i­cat­ed to advanc­ing equi­ty in edu­ca­tion, pub­lic health and all insti­tu­tions. The Foun­da­tion will con­tin­ue to pro­vide resources and data that high­light equi­ty and equal­i­ty in action.

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