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What is Social Equity?

In the financial world, “equity” can refer to ownership of assets that may have debts (or other liabilities) attached to them. It’s often discussed in the context of real estate. “Social equity,” however, applies to social justice. It’s about providing resources and opportunities to people based on factors like need and access. In this article, we’ll form a more comprehensive definition of social equity and why it matters.

The difference between “equality” and “equity”

“Equality” and “equity” are often discussed in the same breath, but their differences should be defined. Equality is equal treatment, access, opportunity, and distribution of resources and services. No one receives more or less. This protects people against direct discrimination, but a one-size-fits-all approach rarely works out well in the real world. Not everyone has the same life circumstances or needs. Treating everyone “equally” – when they’re not equal in access, opportunity, or needs – fails to achieve real change.

Unlike equality, equity does consider peoples’ unique circumstances. In its description of social equity, the American community development organization Urban Strategies, Inc (USI), emphasizes equity’s flexibility. Rather than simply not discriminating (which is the basic promise of equality), equity recognizes structural oppression and is accommodating based on peoples’ experiences. As USI explains, “the place where race, gender, income, sexual orientation, religion, ability, etc intersect (this is called intersectionality) needs to be understood on an individual basis to truly provide the flexibility that equity needs to uphold.”

Do outcomes matter?

Generally, the equity process focuses more on resources, access, and opportunities because a positive outcome does not necessarily mean a lack of barriers. People often succeed in society despite barriers, but their success doesn’t mean those barriers don’t exist. As an example, electing a female president does not mean sexism isn’t real. At the same time, it’s inaccurate to believe outcomes don’t matter at all. Societal systems (governments, corporations, individuals, etc.) often dismiss unfair outcomes by claiming “everyone” has enough resources, access, and opportunity, so if someone doesn’t thrive, it’s their own fault. “We did our part,” a government might say. “The outcomes are out of our hands.” Did everyone truly have resources, access, and opportunity, though? Outcomes matter because if allegedly “equitable” systems and policies are not producing mostly-fair results, it’s a sign those systems and policies need closer examination.

What makes equity challenging?

A few factors play into society’s acceptance of social equity. The first comes down to the perceived need for equity. Let’s consider the United States and equal rights. According to a Pew Research survey with over 10,000 participants, 34% of adults believe “a little more” could be done to ensure equal rights for all Americans, while 50% believe “a lot more” needs to be done. Of that 50%, 25% believe systems are fundamentally biased against some racial/ethnic groups and need to be rebuilt. Around the same number believe change is possible within existing systems. While this survey paints a picture of a country that mostly believes in social equity, it’s sharply divided by political ideology. Only 2 in 10 Republicans said “a lot more” needs to be done to ensure equal rights. This division makes it very challenging to enact far-reaching, long-term policies.

Social equity is also challenging because simply believing it’s necessary isn’t the end of the journey. When high percentages of Americans say they believe “a lot more” should be done to ensure equal rights, what do they mean? What policies should be established? How is success measured? According to Professor Bernadette McSherry (Emeritus Professor at the University of Melbourne and former Foundation Director of the Melbourne Social Equity Institute), social equity is hard to define because it’s based on “moral values or considerations.” These are not the same for everyone. “Fairness” is a highly subjective concept. People can agree that social equity is necessary, but when it’s time to discuss real solutions, things get complicated quickly.

Where does social equity apply?

Social equity is a process that applies to every area of society. In many places (like the United States), racism is often the focus of conversations about social equity, but people face systemic barriers based on their gender, sexuality, disability, migrant status, religion, and more. Barriers increase when people have overlapping experiences and identities. As an example, the systems in the United States put up more barriers for gay Black women than for gay White men. Here are some of the areas where equity applies:

Education

Social equity can have a big impact on education, which is a human right with reverberating impacts through a person’s entire life and the generations after them. A person’s geographic location, race, gender, family income, disabilities, and more affect the educational resources and opportunities they receive. Systems also need to keep a close eye on digital education and how it can end up making inequalities worse. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization, equity policies should focus on addressing inequalities, increasing opportunities for girls, investing in education and digital skills, and encouraging life-long learning habits.

Disability rights

According to the WHO, 15% of the world’s population has a disability. This includes both visible and “invisible” disabilities. As Daphne Frais, an activist and organizer says, “Disabled people live at the intersection of all systems of oppression and social justice issues. There isn’t one issue or one intersection where you will not find disabled individuals advocating for or experiencing the effects of those issues.” We can see this reflected in data from the National Disability Institute. In the 2019 report Financial Inequality: Disability, Race and Poverty in America, the poverty rate for adults with disabilities is 27%, while the rate for adults without a disability is 12%. After adjusting for education level, disabled Black Americans are more likely to be in poverty than other disability groups. While adults with disabilities are more likely to have health insurance, they’re also more than twice as likely to have trouble paying medical bills. Given this information, it’s clear that social equity is needed to protect the rights of disabled people.

Housing

Shelter is a human right, but social injustice and inequity create housing inequality on a massive scale. Some of the root causes of housing issues (such as homelessness) include low wages, unemployment, racial discrimination, and medical debt, which is the cause for ⅔ of people who file for bankruptcy in the United States. Beyond safety, access to housing – specifically home ownership – determines a person’s ability to build wealth. According to a 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances, the median homeowner had 40 times the household wealth of a renter. As a blog from First American (an insurance company) acknowledges, there is risk with homeownership, but it is one of the biggest drivers of wealth-building, especially for those with lower incomes. If systemic barriers restrict people from homeownership, their wealth is deeply affected.

Health and healthcare

Many public health entities prioritize equity. The WHO defines it as “the absence of avoidable or remediable differences among groups of people, whether those groups are defined socially, economically, demographically, or geographically.” Health equity is when “everyone can attain their full potential for health and well-being.” What does “full potential” mean? It doesn’t mean perfect health. Equity is not striving for universal freedom from all disease and healthcare issues because that’s impossible. Health is a unique area because unlike in, say, housing, there are biological factors that affect an individual’s health and health risks.

In healthcare, equity is about giving everyone access and opportunities to be as healthy as they can and want to be. Outcomes are a piece of it, but often, opportunities and access to resources/services don’t guarantee a specific outcome. The fact that they received equitable opportunities/access is most important. Without equity, society is burdened with an unequal and unfair distribution of disease, high maternal and infant mortality rates, lower life expectancies, and poor mental health.

Food security

Globally, food security presents one of the biggest social equity challenges. According to a special report from the IPCC, the current food system (which includes production, processing, consumption, etc) feeds most of the world’s population and supports the livelihoods of 1 billion people. Climate change is already negatively affecting food security and will only get worse. As food prices increase, low-income populations will be most affected. Climate change also presents greater risks of food insecurity based on ethnicity, wealth, class, age, and gender. Food insecurity is also an issue because of its effect on other rights, such as the right to health, education, and housing. According to Barron Segar, president and CEO of World Food Program USA, social equity policies could look like empowering women (who are more likely to report food insecurity), empowering Indigenous people who have crucial knowledge about plant and crop biodiversity, and establishing farmer organizations.

Why does social equity matter?

If we want to live in a world where everyone has the opportunities and resources they need to thrive, where no one is discriminated against, and where everyone’s rights are protected, we need social equity. We won’t achieve that world by treating everyone the same because not everyone is the same. Trying to achieve equality through equality may seem like it would work, but it ignores both historical and existing oppression. Social equity is a flexible, needs-based process that recognizes inequalities and works toward fairness in every area of society including education, housing, healthcare, and more.

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.