Taking on Inequality

I’m on the Board at Social Venture Partners, Seattle, and we’re having a conversation about what “equity” means. It’s a terrific discussion with lots of engaged people asking how this affects how we work to improve education and the environment in our grantmaking.

I don’t speak on behalf of SVP, but the discussion at SVP mirrors conversations about equity and inequality seemingly everywhere.

Politicians are talking about it here. Public intellectuals are talking about it in places like this and this. And businesses now see inequality as such a fact of life, that they are planning their product lines accordingly.

For those of us who want to take on big issues and make a difference, how do we take on inequality? Increasing the minimum wage to $10 an hour nationally (and $15 an hour in Seattle) is a start, but no one believes it will fix the problem. Minimum wage, however important, leaves untouched grantmakers’ big question: how should we distribute scarce time and scarce money?

War on Poverty programs and their successors mostly took a targeted approach. They crafted solutions aimed at only helping the poor. CETA programs made job training available to only those who earned less than a certain income. Head Start screens out all those but the very poor for pre-kindergarten preparation.

Those served by the program are cast as “special interests” – a small group of people who have captured public policy to pick our collective pocket. (The American Enterprise Institute uses this argument to take on welfare and environmental programs here.) Programs with a focus that most of us would agree on – how to help low income children receive the education that makes them ready for kindergarten – are suddenly seen as a benefit for only some of us.

Never mind that we all are helped by an educated population that succeeds in school and is ready for work. This was part of the original motivation for universal schooling in England in the 1870s and 50 years later in the United States. In the public eye, when times are tough, enthusiasm wanes for programs offered to only part of the population. We end up with poor programs for poor people.

At the same time, “universal approaches” – approaches that spread out help evenly through the population – have their own problems.

First, “universal approaches” are wide-open to discrimination. Take seemingly straightforward programs like education, minimum wage and social security. In response to compulsory schooling laws, many states created two entirely different school systems – one for blacks and one for whites – and one state, Texas, had three systems (the third for Hispanics).

Minimum wage and social security laws, as we’ve discussed here and here, were originally written to exclude domestic workers and agricultural workers. At that time, the exclusions locked out nearly two-thirds of the African American population.  As legal scholar and historian William E. Forbath and others demonstrate, the Social Security Act denied benefits to more than half of the nation’s African Americans. Why? Southern Democrats refused to support FDRs bill if it gave benefits to blacks. And even programs that seem to have no connection to equity, like the Federal Highways Program, have very different impacts on different parts of the population. (More on this in a later post.)

Second, as john powell at UC Berkeley points out, universal approaches assume that there is a universal standard. That is, they assume everyone is situated in the same place. Big assumption. This graphic has been making the rounds lately that illustrates the challenge. Here’s the version that recently appeared on Free Child:


Equal v equitable


Supplying every kid with the same box (aka the same resources) might be equality, but it is not equity. The same sized box doesn’t let every kid see the game.  powell uses the word “situatedness” to talk about this distinction.  To achieve equitable outcomes, we have to understand how each person is “situated” and then craft a policy that addresses those concerns.

So if targeted programs have their limitations, and universal programs fail in other ways, what to do?  That’s our next subject. Stay tuned.


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