What’s the Difference Between Equity and Equality?

Well-mean­ing peo­ple often use the terms ​“equi­ty” and ​“equal­i­ty” inter­change­ably when dis­cussing mat­ters relat­ed to race and social jus­tice. While both terms have to do with ​“fair­ness,” there are key dif­fer­ences as the appli­ca­tion of one over the oth­er may lead to dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent out­comes. Equal­i­ty requires that every­one receives the same resources and oppor­tu­ni­ties, regard­less of cir­cum­stances and despite any inher­ent advan­tages or dis­ad­van­tages that apply to cer­tain groups. Equi­ty, on the oth­er hand, con­sid­ers the spe­cif­ic needs or cir­cum­stances of a per­son or group and pro­vides the types of resources need­ed to be successful.

Equal­i­ty assumes that every­body is oper­at­ing at the same start­ing point and will face the same cir­cum­stances and chal­lenges. Equi­ty rec­og­nizes the short­com­ings of this ​“one-size-fits-all” approach and under­stands that dif­fer­ent lev­els of sup­port must be pro­vid­ed to achieve fair­ness in outcomes.

A high­ly cir­cu­lat­ed image seeks to pro­vide a visu­al illus­tra­tion of the dif­fer­ences between equal­i­ty and equi­ty. The image depicts three peo­ple stand­ing behind a fence, watch­ing a base­ball game. The three indi­vid­u­als are all dif­fer­ent heights, with the tallest of the three being able to see over the fence with­out any help. The oth­er two are not tall enough to see over. Equal­i­ty pro­vides each of these peo­ple with iden­ti­cal box­es to stand on to peer over the fence. The tallest per­son, who didn’t need the box in the first place, now stands even high­er, con­tin­u­ing to enjoy a per­fect view of the game. The sec­ond per­son can now see over the fence, and the third per­son, even with the help of the box, is still too short to see over.


Insti­tu­tions like the nation’s pub­lic health and edu­ca­tion sys­tems pro­vide some of the stark­est exam­ples of equi­ty and equal­i­ty in action and the vast­ly dif­fer­ent out­comes they affect. While ​“equal­i­ty in health care” may sound noble, it is only equi­ty in health care that takes into account social injus­tices and pro­vides addi­tion­al resources to the indi­vid­u­als who need them.


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