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What Is Equity?

I suspect that most of us subscribe to the concept of equity in a general sense. But if pressed, could we define it unequivocally? Moreover, could we really commit ourselves to it and strive to achieve it? For example, how would you answer these questions?

A child born in one zip code in 2016 will likely live 5 years longer than a child born a few miles away in a different zip code in the very same city. Does this seem fair?

A black child born during the past few years in the United States will, on average, live to age 75; a white child born during the same time period will, on average, live to age 79. Does this seem fair?

A child living on one side of a street attends a school with a shortage of books, outdated facilities, and no access to music instruction; a child living across the street, in a different school district, attends a school with enough books, modern facilities, and a variety of enrichment classes. Does this seem fair?

Most people would respond that these situations are not fair. Few people take satisfaction in a status quo with sizable disparities based on where people live, their race, or a history of exclusion. But how would you respond to these possible remedies?

Certain groups of Christians, Jews, and Muslims have practiced gender segregation of various forms historically and to the present day. Should we accept such segregation as reasonable accommodation of diverse cultural norms, thereby equitable across varied cultural communities? Or, should we denounce it as a violation of our values, a barrier to gender equity?

A white applicant to an educational program does not receive admission, in favor of a student of color with lower admissions test scores, in order to rectify historical injustice. Does this seem fair? If it does seem fair, would you change your opinion if you knew that the white student’s grandparents had marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to end racial discrimination? What if you knew that the Nazis had murdered her great-grandparents in the Holocaust?

Should we merge school districts so that all children, regardless of where they happen to live, have equal access to the same resources?

When we consider remedies, it usually reveals great disagreement, even among people who proclaim a strong commitment to “equity.”

Social commentators of many different stripes have cited extreme income “inequality” as one of the most dangerous trends the world faces at present. I would agree that having a minuscule portion of the human population controlling a huge portion of the world’s wealth will very likely lead to trouble. But does it constitute only a severe disparity that we must live with in an imperfect world, or a morally indefensible inequity that we should seek to eliminate? Must the wealth of the world be divided into 7,300,000,000 equal shares (or thereabouts) to achieve equity, or can some people fairly have larger shares than others?

Does Equity Require Equality?

If not, what’s the tipping point at which inequality becomes inequitable? A common twentieth century response involved distinguishing between equality of opportunity and equality of result. That provided temporary satisfaction to those wishing to reform the status quo, until we realized that a universal guarantee of eligibility to stand at the starting line doesn’t provide much advantage to people who lack training, a good coach, and proper running shoes.

Equity is something that decent people can love in principle, struggle to define and measure, and severely disagree in the identification of a means to achieve it.

Equity and Our Mission

So, where does that put Wilder Research, given our mission to improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities through research – and our obligation to carry out this mission in an independent, nonpartisan, solidly-evidenced way?

We consider the movement toward equity an inchoate process at present – something that we understand enough to enter, but which we need to mold and shape with others based on what we learn as we all move forward.

We like the suggestion put forth by the Minnesota Department of Health that health inequities are avoidable disparities in health status based on social characteristics such as race, income, or geographic location. This implies that we can do something to influence them.

We shed light on disparities in educational achievement, homelessness, life expectancy, juvenile justice, and other areas, raising them up for careful examination.

We participate in activities to promote equity, so long as those activities remain inclusive and nonpartisan. Our endeavors in early child development and in education, for example, intend to promote full community efforts to enable all young people to thrive in their personal, family, work, and community lives.

Finally, we remain eager to collaborate, playing whatever role we have the competence to play – providing enlightening information, conducting methodologically rigorous research, convening groups to understand these issues – with partners who seek to take action to enrich the lives of everyone and make this world a better place.
 
Paul Mattesich has served as executive director of Wilder Research since 1982. This post was orginally published on his blog, The Executive Summary.

 

 

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Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, 451 Lexington Parkway North, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55104 Phone: 651-280-2000
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