It is common to hear people mention striving for equality when talking about social justice. Equality is great in some circumstances, but the use of the word equity is not as common and may be a better fit for what we want to achieve. Equality is when all people are treated equally regardless of their needs and their starting point. This means that access to stairs is an equal option. However, not everyone can use stairs, thus it is not an equitable solution. Equity is when everyone receives access based on their needs. Equity recognizes that everyone is different, and we are going to have different needs. The equitable solution is to provide stairs, ramps, elevators, etc. This solution is not equal because not everyone will use the same option. But everyone will have an option that is accessible to their needs.
I think the reason these two terms have been on my mind is because in recent years I have heard a lot of people react to social assistance as being a “hand out”. These people get frustrated because they are “working for their money” and it makes them feel like they are being treated unfairly when others have access to free support that they do not. I will use myself as an example. I grew up privileged, in a family that had money to pay for my school, my food, and my extracurricular activities. I was starting at a very different place than someone whose parents could not provide them with these things. Treating us equally would mean either neither of us get assistance to pay for school, or both of us get money to pay for school (offering free, or lower cost education to everyone is a positive in my books, but that is a topic for another day). Equitable treatment would recognize that the other student has needs that are different from mine, they may need more assistance paying for school than I will. I was born into a family that could provide these things for me, is this not just as much a “hand out” as receiving money from the government? I was born with a privilege that some people are not. Additionally, there are many other factors that could result in someone having unequal and inequitable access to resources, such as money, ethnicity, disability, etc. I acknowledge that I have been privileged to have access to what I have, I do not get angry or frustrated when someone needs different, or additional support to help them get what they need out of life.
Housing, financial stability, access to health care, adequate nutrition, are all things that having access to, can prevent mental health difficulties and leads to better societal functioning. It is also incredibly difficult to get a job or progress in society without most of those things. If you do not have access to them when you are born, or something happens in life that you no longer have access to, how are you supposed to achieve them without support? Having money, health support, and/or housing support when in need has been found to help people transition into more independent, self-sufficient, and healthy ways of living (read more about one of those studies here). Why would we not want to help people reach those things so that they can create a better life for themselves and their future generations? Life can throw challenges into people’s lives, and it can happen to anyone, having support for those times in people’s lives sounds like a positive not a negative! I spent a lot of time focusing on the equity of money, but I want to highlight again the importance that equity is for people with disabilities and those facing other accessibility barriers. If everyone had equal access to money people would still have different needs, and this is where equity continues to be necessary.