You may be familiar with the classic image of three kids of different heights trying to see a baseball game over a fence. One version of the image gives each of the three boys a crate to stand on. The tallest one can easily see over the fence, the medium-sized one can now see over the fence if he stands on his tip-toes, and the shortest one still cannot see over the fence. A second version of the image redistributes the crates so that the tallest boy does not have one, the medium-sized boy gets one crate, and the shortest boy gets two crates. In this version, all three individuals can see over the fence. These two scenarios visually encapsulate the difference between equity and equality.
The first scenario in which each kid receives one crate to stand on represents equality. Each boy is given equal quantities of the good—in this case, crates—without taking into account their individual needs. The second scenario that results in all three kids being able to see over the fence represents equity. Each boy is given an equitable share of the goods based on their individual needs. The tallest boy does not need a crate in order to see over the fence, so he does not receive one. The medium-sized boy only needs one crate to see over the fence, so he only gets one. And the shortest boy needs two crates to see over the fence, so he gets two. In both examples, three crates are available for distribution, but the way they are allotted results in different outcomes for each person.
Equity vs. Equality
Equality refers to the uniform distribution of a good or service to everyone. In other words, each person receives the same amount of whatever commodity is being distributed, regardless of their individual circumstances.
Equity, on the other hand, refers to the fair distribution of goods and services based on individual need. Those who start with less are given more of the commodity, while those who have more receive less of it.
The distinction between equity and equality dates as far back as the musings of Aristotle in the 300s BC. Aristotle identified a key difference between what he called proportional and numerical equality. Proportional equality is similar to the modern conception of equity—goods are proportionally allocated to individuals based on several factors contributing to their relative need for those goods. Goods are shared equitably; those who have more of the good do not need more, so they receive less. Those who have less need more, so they receive more. By this logic, the unequal distribution of goods is justified when the recipients of the goods are on unequal standing. Numerical equality, on the other hand, is just as the name suggests: goods are distributed in equal numbers to all individuals. Numerical equality does not consider the relative need of the recipients of the goods. It simply distributes the same amount of the good to everyone irrespective of other factors.
On the surface, numerical equality is appealing. If everybody is given the same amount of a good, nobody receives less of that good, which is fair. However, this does not eliminate any inequality that exists prior to the distribution of the good. Although everyone has more than what they started with, the difference between those who started with more and those who started with less remains the same. In the image depicting equality among the three boys using crates to see over a fence, each boy ends with a net gain of one crate. However, their respective heights including the crates remain the same. The tallest boy on his crate is still the same amount taller than the shortest boy on his crate.
Equity aims to shrink that initial gap between those with more and those with less. The equitable distribution of crates to the boys trying to see over the fence results in all of them being at the same height after the disbursement of the crates. The shortest boy with two crates is now the same height as the medium-sized boy with one crate and the tallest boy with no crate.
Equity and equality are both desirable for society, but which is preferable depends on what good or resource is up for grabs. For example, people should face equal standing under the law. An upper-class criminal ideally should face the same consequences as a middle- or lower-class citizen convicted of the exact same crime. In theory, their life circumstances should not affect their sentence if there is no difference in the severity of their crimes.
Equity is favorable in situations where systemic injustices place certain populations on an uneven playing field. For example, minorities, especially African Americans, have historically faced discrimination in areas such as access to employment and higher education. White Americans are often given preferential treatment in hiring practices and college admissions. Affirmative Action policies attempt to diminish these inequities, requiring that businesses make hiring decisions based on relevant qualifications rather than race, gender identity, and other statuses. Such policies aim to raise historically disadvantaged populations to the same starting point as the historically advantaged, distributing the resources to do so in an equitable manner.
Despite being very similar words, equity and equality have very different implications in practice. The two are not interchangeable, so it is crucial to analyze social issues through a careful lens. Is a particular problem a case of inequity or inequality? In order to avoid confusion and the risk of appearing misinformed, be sure to identify whether equity or equality is the end goal of your social action.