In the context of social systems such as education, politics, and government, the terms equity and equality have similar but slightly different meanings. Equality refers to scenarios in which all segments of society have the same levels of opportunity and support. Equity extends the concept of equality to include providing varying levels of support based on individual need or ability.
Key Takeaways: Equity vs. Equality
- Equality is providing the same level of opportunity and assistance to all segments of society, such as races and genders.
- Equity is providing various levels of support and assistance depending on specific needs or abilities.
- Equality and equity are most often applied to the rights and opportunities of minority groups.
- Laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provide equality, while policies such as affirmative action provide equity.
Equality Definition and Examples
The dictionary defines equality as the state of being equal in rights, status, and opportunity. In the context of social policy, equality is the right of different groups of people—such as men and women or Blacks and whites—to enjoy the benefits of similar social status and receive the same treatment without the fear of discrimination.
The legal principle of social equality in the United States was confirmed in 1868 by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides that “nor shall any State [...] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
A modern application of the Equal Protection Clause can be seen in the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 decision in the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education, which declared that separate schools for African American and white children were inherently unequal and thus unconstitutional. The ruling led to the racial integration of America’s public schools and paved the way for the enactment of more sweeping social equality laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Equity Definition and Examples
Equity refers to the provision of varying levels of support—based on specific needs—to achieve greater fairness of treatment and outcomes. The National Academy of Public Administration defines equity as “The fair, just and equitable management of all institutions serving the public directly or by contract; the fair, just and equitable distribution of public services and implementation of public policy; and the commitment to promote fairness, justice, and equity in the formation of public policy.” In essence, equity can be defined as a means of achieving equality.
For example, the Help America Vote Act requires that people with disabilities be provided with access to polling places and voting systems equal to that of able-bodied people. Similarly, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that persons with disabilities have equal access to public facilities.
Recently, U.S. government policy has focused on social equity in the area of sexual orientation. For example, President Barack Obama appointed nearly 200 self-declared members of the LGBTQ Community to paid positions within the executive branch. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development published the first-ever estimate of discrimination against same-sex couples in housing opportunities.
Equity in the area of gender-based discrimination in education is provided by Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act of 1972, which states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Title IX applies to virtually every aspect of the educational experience from scholarships and athletics, to employment and discipline at approximately 16,500 local school districts, 7,000 postsecondary institutions, as well as charter schools, for-profit schools, libraries, and museums. In athletics, for example, Title IX requires that women and men be provided equitable opportunities to participate in sports.
Equity vs. Equality Examples
In many areas, achieving equality requires the application of policies ensuring equity.
In education, equality means providing every student with the same experience. Equity, however, means overcoming discrimination against specific groups of people, especially defined by race and gender.
While civil rights laws ensure equality of access to higher education by barring public colleges and universities from completely denying enrollment to any minority group, these laws do not ensure equity in levels of minority enrollment. To achieve that equity, the policy of affirmative action increases college enrollment opportunities specifically for minority groups including races, genders, and sexual orientations.
First introduced by an executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, affirmative action has since been extended to apply to the areas of employment and housing.
On January 24, 2022, The U.S. Supreme Court announced it would hear two cases challenging affirmative action in college admissions. Supporters of affirmative action fear the move could end the practice of race being used as a consideration for which applicants are admitted to elite American universities.
Both brought by Students for Fair Admissions, the two suits claim that using race as a part of the college selection process violates protections against discrimination found in the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Similar arguments have been used in previous challenges to affirmative action that have come before the Supreme Court since the 1970s. In those rulings, the Court significantly limited the extent to which race can be weighted in college admissions. However, the justices allowed affirmative action to continue in the belief that colleges have a compelling interest to promote diversity on their campuses.
Legal experts say the current Court is far more likely to strike down affirmative action in its entirety. Justices Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had routinely defended the practice, were replaced during the Donald Trump administration by staunch conservatives, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
Defenders of affirmative action argue that without it, America’s elite colleges would become more racially homogenous and less representative of the country as a whole. In support of this argument, they cite data from states that have nullified racial preferences on their own. In the University of California system, for example, enrollment rates for Latino, Black, and Native American students have fallen significantly since the state eliminated affirmative action in 1996.
While religious equality is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, religious equity in the workplace is provided by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under this law, employers are required to accommodate their employees’ religious observances or practices unless doing so would cause a “unique hardship to the conduct of the employer's business.”
A city is forced to cut the budget for its several neighborhood service centers. Cutting the operational hours for all of the centers by the same amount would be a solution representing equality. Equity, on the other hand, would be for the city to first determine which neighborhoods actually use their centers the most and reduce the hours of the less-often used centers.
Sources and Further Reference
- “Distinguish between Equity and Equality.” Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health.
- Mitchell, Danielle. “Reading Between The Aisles: Same-Sex Marriage As A Conflicted Symbol Of Social Equity.” The Washington & Jefferson College Review. (2007).
- Frederickson, H. George (2015). “Social Equity and Public Administration: Origins, Developments, and Applications.” Routledge. ISBN 978-1-31-745977-4.
- Gooden, Susan T. (2015). “Race and Social Equity: A Nervous Area of Government.” Routledge. ISBN 978-1-31-746145-6.