What's the Difference Between Equity and Equality?
How to Judge Justice and Fairness in Life
Many people conflate the idea of equality with equity but there are distinct differences. The purpose of this blog is to explain these two concepts and why they should be kept separate.
The key to distinguishing between the two is to understand how they are implemented. Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.
There’s more to it so let me drill down on the differences.
Equity can be defined as “the state, quality or ideal of being just, impartial and fair.” The concept of equity is synonymous with fairness and justice. It is helpful to think of equity as not simply a desired state of affairs or a lofty value. To achieve and sustain equity, it needs to be thought of as a structural and systemic concept.
Equity involves trying to understand and give people what they need to enjoy full, healthy lives. Equality, in contrast, aims to ensure that everyone gets the same things to enjoy full, healthy lives. Like equity, equality aims to promote fairness and justice, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same things.
Now for the more technical definitions and implications of health equity and equality, the key to a happy, self-fulfilled society.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), equity is defined as “the absence of avoidable or remediable differences among groups of people, whether those groups are defined socially, economically, demographically or geographically.” Therefore, as the WHO notes, health inequities involve more than lack of equal access to needed resources to maintain or improve health outcomes. They also refer to difficulty when it comes to “inequalities that infringe on fairness and human rights norms.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refers to health equity as when everyone has the opportunity to be as healthy as possible.” As such, equity is a process and equality is an outcome of that process. Or, as the Race Matters describes, “The route to achieving equity will not be accomplished through treating everyone equally. It will be achieved by treating everyone equitably, or justly according to their circumstances.”
Understanding the difference between health equality and health equity is important to public health to ensure that resources are directed appropriately — as well as supporting the ongoing process of meeting people where they are. Inherent to this process is the promotion of diversity in teams and personnel, public health practice, research methods and other related factors. For these reasons, providing the same type and number of resources to all is not enough. To reduce the health disparities gap, the underlying issues and individual needs of underserved and vulnerable populations must be effectively addressed.
Race Matters Institute provides examples of the differences in the two concepts and how they affect society.
A city cuts the budget for 25 community centers by reducing the operational hours for all centers by the same amount at the same times.
A community meeting, where all members of the community are invited, about a local environmental health concern is held in English though English is not the primary language for 25% of the residents.
All public schools in a community have computer labs with the same number of computers and hours of operation during school hours.
As for examples of equity, here are a few.
The city determines which times and how many hours communities actually need to use their community centers and reduces hours for centers that aren’t used as frequently.
The community leaders hire translators to attend the meeting or offer an additional meeting held in another language.
Computer labs in lower income neighborhoods have more computers and printers, as well as longer hours of operation, as some students don’t have access to computers or internet at home.
Notice that equity deals with the needs of each individual and community and adjusts resources accordingly, which may differ from individual to individual and community to community. Equality attempts to bring everyone and every community up to the same level so that everyone gets treated alike.
Perhaps the best way to explain the differences between the two concepts is to look at the starting points for runners in a track event. Notice how those on the inside seem to have a longer distance to run while those on the outside seem to be running a shorter distance. In reality, if you're running in one of the outside lanes, you're running around a bigger oval -- the farther out you go, the longer you'd have to run if you were running a full lap. Races have staggered starts so that everyone is running the same distance.
So, in life we want both equality (of opportunity) and equity (to make up for differences in circumstances). Hopefully, this blog has explained why.
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on August 31, 2021. Steve is the author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.