Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference – Examples & Definitions

“Equity” and “equality” are not synonymous. Find out the difference between equity and equality and why United Way NCA is championing equity in the region.

June 22, 2021Equity: the quality of being fair and impartial.

Equality: the state of being equal, especially in status, rights and opportunities.

It’s hard to see the difference between those two definitions, and many people assume they are synonymous. In the social justice and racial justice movements though, equity and equality have distinct and important differences.

United Way of the National Capital Area champions equity for all, regardless of race, gender, income, ability or zip code. But what does equity mean, really? What does United Way NCA mean when we talk about reaching equity for all? Below, we break down the difference between equity and equality, why the difference matters for marginalized people and how United Way NCA is creating a more equitable future for the National Capital Area.

What is the Definition of Equity?

Equity, in its simplest terms as it relates to racial and social justice, means meeting communities where they are and allocating resources and opportunities as needed to create equal outcomes for all community members.

What is the Definition of Equality?

Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources and opportunities, regardless of their circumstances. In social and racial justice movements, equality can actually increase inequities in communities as not every group of people needs the same resources or opportunities allocated to them in order to thrive.

What is the Difference Between Equity and Equality?

Equity recognizes each person has different circumstances and needs, and therefore different groups of people need different resources and opportunities allocated to them in order to thrive.

Equality is giving everyone the exact same resources across the board, regardless of individuals’ or groups of people’s actual needs or opportunities/resources already provided to them.

In equitable programs like United Way NCA’s work, instead of giving each individual or group of people the same resources (by definition, equality), data is analyzed to determine where funds, resources and opportunities need to be allocated most in order to give all community members the same opportunity to thrive.

If you have researched the differences between equity and equality before, you have probably come across this helpful illustration of an apple tree created by Tony Ruth, with two children standing below it in hopes of receiving fallen fruit. In the “inequality” version of the illustration, it shows two boys standing under the tree. The tree is slightly slanted toward the left, and therefore the apples are falling all on the left side, to one boy. The boy on the right receives nothing. When they are both given a ladder of the same height (equality) the boy on the left gets even more apples than he did on the ground, but the boy on the right still receives none—his ladder is not tall enough to reach the tree. When the boy on the left is given a ladder of the exact height he needs to reach the tree, he receives more apples, and when the boy on the right receives a slightly taller ladder than the boy on the left (based on his individual needs), he too is able to finally reach the tree and collect apples. This example shows there is not a one-size-fits-all solution (equality) to the problems we see in the world, but there’s a right-size solution for each individual’s needs (equity).

What are Examples of Equity?

    1) Leaders in the National Capital Area host an information meeting for all community members on the COVID-19 pandemic, testing, vaccinations and more. They host this event multiple times in different languages including English, Spanish and Korean to serve all major populations. This way, everyone hears the same information in their native or primary language.
    • 2) Low-income students in a Prince George’s County neighborhood do not have access to the internet and don’t own computers, making it difficult for them to complete lessons and homework assignments through their school’s virtual, at-home school year during the pandemic. On the other hand, other students throughout the county have affordable access to Wi-Fi, laptops and other needed digital tools to succeed in school. A local nonprofit sees this data and allocates funds to supply the students without internet access with Wi-Fi hotspots and laptops but does not give hotspots or laptops to the students who already have access to these tools. Now, all students have the tools they need in order to succeed in a virtual learning environment.

What are Examples of Equality?

Let’s look at the same situations we noted in the section above, but instead of finding equitable outcomes, we’ll describe what they would look like if equality had been the focus.

1) Leaders in the National Capital Area host an information meeting for all community members on the COVID-19 pandemic, testing, vaccinations and more. They only host the meeting once, and it is only held in the English language. There are no translators or separate meetings for residents who do not speak English or speak English as a second language, isolating a large population of the National Capital Area from receiving important and potentially life-saving health information.

2) Low-income students in a Prince George’s County neighborhood do not have access to the internet and don’t own computers, making it difficult for them to complete lessons and homework assignments through their school’s virtual, at-home school year during the pandemic. On the other hand, other students throughout the county have affordable access to Wi-Fi, laptops and other needed digital tools to succeed in school. A local nonprofit allocates funds to give each student in the county a laptop, but because they do not have enough funds to supply both laptops and hotspots to every student, they are unable to provide any student with a Wi-Fi hotspot. The students that did not have internet access beforehand in their homes now have a laptop but still cannot access their school’s virtual classrooms and therefore miss lessons and homework assignments throughout the school year.

How is United Way NCA Improving Equity?

United Way of the National Capital Area believes everyone deserves hope, respect and a fair chance. That’s why we’re creating a more equitable future for all community members by breaking down barriers in health, education and economic opportunity.

United Way NCA reduces health disparities and improves health outcomes for individuals and families in the National Capital Area. Our health programs increase equity in access to health resources that promote physical and mental well-being among students and families. Find out how we’re doing this here.

We also reduce academic disparities and improve academic outcomes for young people in the National Capital Area by focusing on the education pipeline from middle school to college and/or career success, working in Title I schools to address attendance, behavior and course performance through our Community Schools program. Find out why United Way NCA focuses on middle school students and more information on our programmatic work surrounding education here.

United Way NCA also reduces wealth disparities and improves economic opportunities with financial training and workforce development for individuals and families in the National Capital Area. We do this by providing residents with economic opportunity and removing barriers to stable and affordable housing. Find out more details on our economic opportunity work here.

How Can You Practice and Promote Equity in Your Community?

There are many ways you can practice and promote equity in your community, household, workplace, place of worship, etc. The first step is to reflect on your own belief system. What implicit biases do you hold? How can you dismantle those? How can you educate yourself through books, media, diversity and inclusion seminars, etc. to understand equity further? In fall 2021, United Way NCA will launch a Practice Equity campaign, in which we will  post ways community members can practice equity daily. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to stay tuned. You can also sign up for our 21 Day Race Equity Journey, a 21-day newsletter series, to learn more about unpacking how equity plays a role in determining outcomes of people through different stages of life depending on their intersections of race, gender, sexuality and/or socioeconomic standing.

To promote equity in your community, you need to get involved! Reaching an equitable future for all community members necessitates action. By supporting nonprofits and programs like United Way NCA, you can make a difference. This can be done through monetary donations, corporate sponsorships of programs, volunteering and advocating.

To learn more about equity and how United Way NCA is achieving a more equitable future, visit unitedwaynca.org/equity and join the movement! When none are ignored, all will thrive.

About United Way of the National Capital Area

United Way of the National Capital Area improves the health, education and economic opportunity of every person in the National Capital community. United Way NCA has been improving lives by creating measurable impact in the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties for more than 45 years. In 2020, United Way NCA was among 384 organizations across the United States to receive a generous transformational investment from novelist and venture philanthropist, MacKenzie Scott. For more information about United Way of the National Capital Area, visit UnitedWayNCA.org.

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