Liberty and Justice for All: Why the difference between “equity” and “equality” matters


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Society needs to move towards the idea of equity over equality

“Liberty and Justice for All” is a column about issues of equality. Or is it about issues of equity? Are they different? Does it matter?
I think it does. It matters because the words we use matter, and that’s never more true than when we are discussing issues that impact people’s safety, success, and happiness. So what do these words mean? First, let’s ask the dictionary; then, we’ll dive deeper.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “equality” as “the quality or state of being equal.” Meanwhile, it says “equity” means “justice according to natural law or right.”
There are some important distinctions between those two definitions. The idea of equality is very straightforward: equality occurs when two things are the same. This might mean two people getting access to the same amount of government benefits, or a group of people being taxed at an equal rate. Meanwhile, equity is more complex. It requires things not to be the same, but rather to be just in regards to basic rights.
One common way in which the difference between equity and equality is explained goes like this: Equality is when everyone gets the same thing. Equity is when everyone gets the thing that they need. This idea of everyone getting what they need is a simple but powerful thought, the fulfillment of which we should all strive to achieve. It involves recognizing that everyone has different circumstances in their lives that may cause their needs to vary.
So, where does this important distinction come into play, in practice? Oftentimes, it’s issues of accessibility where equity needs to be included. For example, when economic instability rose during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans dealt with inequity in the unemployment system. Everyone had an equal opportunity to apply for benefits, but those whose circumstances made them unable to navigate the complicated and time-consuming application process were more often left hurting financially. This same principle applies to systems of a smaller scale. For example, students at Cherry Hill High School East may have equal access to sign up for extracurricular activities, but the costs associated with some of these activities can nonetheless create an inequitable distribution of opportunities for students who have different levels of ability to pay fees.
As we work to create a world in which every person can prosper, it is important that we are mindful of the language we use and the impact it has. The next time you’re discussing policy issues where these terms come into play, be sure to consider whether “equity” or “equality” is the more appropriate word to use.
Equality remains a critical concept, and in certain instances, it should be our focus. But in order to create liberty and justice for all, we’ll primarily need to create equity for all.