Equality refers to situations where everyone is treated exactly the same, whereas equity refers to situations where people are given resources and support based upon their levels of need.
Equality represents a ‘blind’ approach to the treatment of people in society. For example, in this model, a government might give everyone $5000 per year for their child’s education, regardless of need.
Equity represents a needs-based approach to the treatment of people in society. For example, in this model, a government might give everyone $4000, but give an extra $2000 to parents with children of special needs so they can buy extra resources with recognition that those special needs will incur a cost.
The core difference between the two approaches is that equality is about perfectly even distribution of support and resources, whereas equity is about ensuring everyone has an opportunity in life, recognizing that those who are disadvantaged need extra help if they are to have equal opportunity.
Equity vs Equality Examples
In education, teachers need to take into account whether they will give the same support to every family in a ‘blind’ equity approach, or, whether they will focus on an equality approach, distributing resources by need in an educational approach known as differentiation.
In terms of equality, each student in a classroom might be given the exact same textbook to study from.
In terms of equity, however, recognizing that students have different learning styles, the teacher might provide audiobooks for students who learn better through hearing, digital versions for those who read better on screens, or adapted versions for students with learning disabilities.
Equity scenario: Acknowledging diverse needs and learning styles, resources are distributed differently, with some students receiving audiobooks, digital versions, or adapted versions of textbooks.
Equality scenario: Each student in a classroom is given the same textbook, regardless of their individual learning needs or styles.
2. Economic Policy
If a government provides every citizen with the same amount of money, that would be an example of economic equality. However, equity would take into account that some people may need more financial assistance.
This might be due to various factors such as unemployment, disability, marginalization, or poverty.
In this case, the government might provide more substantial support to those in more significant need.
We see equity, for example, in social welfare and distributive justice policies, where the government uses greater resources for marginalized and impoverished communities than for communities that seem to be running quite well without government support.
Equity scenario: Government provides more substantial financial support to those in greater need due to factors such as unemployment, disability, or poverty.
Equality scenario: Government provides every citizen with the same amount of money, irrespective of their individual financial circumstances.
3. Access to Technology
Access to technology in schools is also a matter of equity vs equality. Equality would mean giving every student in a school the same type of computer. In contrast, equity would recognize that not every student has the same resources at home.
For example, some students may not have reliable internet at home or a quiet space to work. Equity might mean providing these students with additional resources like internet hotspots, noise-canceling headphones, or access to a safe and quiet workspace.
Equity scenario: Additional resources like internet hotspots, noise-canceling headphones, or access to a safe and quiet workspace are provided to students who lack these resources at home.
Equality scenario: Every student in a school is given the same type of computer, without considering their individual circumstances or resources at home.
4. Environmental Justice
If a city planted the same number of trees in every neighborhood, this would be an example of environmental equality. But equity would take into account that some neighborhoods might be more polluted or have less access to green spaces.
In this case, the city might plant more trees or create more parks in these neighborhoods, to address the imbalance and provide everyone with a healthy living environment.
This is particularly important when we look at things from an environmental justice perspective, which sees that it’s often the poorer communities that have less access to greenspaces and live in more polluted areas, meaning may they need extra support if they are to enjoy a healthy environment like the rest of us.
Equity scenario: The city plants more trees or creates more parks in neighborhoods that are more polluted or have less access to green spaces.
Equality scenario: The city plants the same number of trees in every neighborhood, regardless of the existing level of pollution or access to green spaces.
See Also: Examples of Environmental Injustice
5. Job Opportunity
In the workplace, equity vs equality is often associated with affirmative action policies, which refers to policies that aim to ensure the workplace has a balance of people of gender and racial backgrounds.
For example, an equality approach might redact the names of applicants on job applications and not ask for identity features. They want to treat everyone exactly the same when applying for jobs.
But an equity approach might involve the HR department insisting that on the shortlist of 8 people who are invited into interviews, at least 4 should be women and 4 men, while at least 4 should also be people of color.
This equity approach is designed to ensure the company is considering a diverse amount of people and isn’t unintentionally only interviewing and hiring from privileged groups with higher social capital.
Equity scenario: A company implements a program to train and hire people from underrepresented groups who may not have had access to the same educational opportunities.
Equality scenario: A company aims to be blind to names, genders, and ethnicity of applicants, regardless of their background or opportunities.
6. Little League
In little league, the coach can either split his time using an equity approach or an equality approach.
In the Equity scenario, he would spend extra time with players who are new to the sport or in extra need of skills training to help them catch up with those who’ve been playing longer.
In the equality scenario, he may recognize that all parents paid the same amount to have their kids in the league, so he feels he should divide his time equally among all the players regardless of skill or whether they need remedial support.
Equity scenario: Coach spends extra time with players new to the sport.
Equality scenario: Coach divides time equally among all players.
7. Transport Subsidies for Low-Income People
A city may set up their transit fares so that everyone pays per fare – say, $2.30 for each trip.
Or, they may decide that there are people in extra need of support. This could include population groups who are less likely to have their own cars or who may experience financial difficulties.
These groups could include lower-income people and the elderly.
They decide to subsidize their fares and only charge them $1 per fare.
They hope that this means everyone can access public transit, achieving equality of opportunity (everyone can get about, go to the grocery store, make it to the bank, etc.) rather than simply charging everyone the same rate and accepting that some people won’t be able to afford to get a bus ride.
Equity scenario: Poorer and elderly people pay less so everyone can access transport.
Equality scenario: Everyone pays the same regardless of capacity to pay.
8. Food Assistance
A food bank often needs to make judgments based on equity vs equality. For example, they may choose to have a limit of 1 bag of groceries per visit.
But, they know that there are some mothers who come in with very large families who struggle to feed the whole family on the usual 1 bag policy.
As a result, the food back decides to make exceptions for these mothers so that their children don’t go without. Here, they have prioritized every child getting access to adequate nutrition above an equality policy of 1 bag per visit.
Equity scenario: Food bank gives more food to larger families or those with dietary restrictions.
Equality scenario: Food bank gives the same amount of food to every family.
9. Private School Scholarships for the Poor
A private school has to make a profit so it decides that the equal thing to do is to charge a rate of $24,000 per child per year to access the school.
But they have recently been accused of being exclusive and elitist because poor people can’t get access to their excellent services. In response to this criticism, they decide to set a payment scale based on need.
Families earning under $100,000 per year only have to pay $15,000 per child. Families earning between $100,001 and $150,000 have to pay $24,000 per child. Families earning $150,001 or more must pay $30,000 per child.
Now, they have moved to an equity approach to improve access for poorer people. But now, they have the rich families complaining it’s unfair: equity means the rich are subsidizing the poor!
Equality scenario: Everyone pays the same flat rate. This is a business, not a charity!
Equity scenario: Families pay on a sliding scale based on family income to increase access for lower-income families.
10. Arts and Culture Funding
Arts and culture funding can represent the dichotomy between equity and equality. An equality approach might see a government evenly distribute funding across all artistic endeavors, regardless of the type of art, audience reach, or cultural significance.
Conversely, an equity approach might allocate more funds to culturally significant art forms, underrepresented artistic voices, or art forms that reach marginalized communities.
This approach aims to promote diversity and inclusivity within the arts sector.
Equity scenario: Government allocates more funds to culturally significant art forms, underrepresented artistic voices, or art forms that reach marginalized communities.
Equality scenario: Government evenly distributes funding across all artistic endeavors, regardless of the type of art, audience reach, or cultural significance.
11. Public Safety Measures
Public safety measures can also highlight the differences between equity and equality.
For instance, an equality approach might result in evenly distributing police patrols across all neighborhoods, regardless of crime rates or community needs.
However, an equity approach might increase patrols in high-crime areas (known as the broken windows policing model) or provide additional resources for community policing in areas with a history of police-community tension.
Equity scenario: The city increases police patrols in high-crime areas or provides additional resources for community policing in areas with a history of police-community tension.
Equality scenario: The city evenly distributes police patrols across all neighborhoods, regardless of crime rates or community needs.
12. Nutrition Programs in Schools
An equality approach to school lunches might involve having the same fees for school lunches, regardless of individual nutritional needs or the financial means of the family. As a result, the school might observe that some children are going hungry.
So, the school might pivot to an equity approach, where children from low-income families receive free school meals. They also notice that a lot of the gluten-free children aren’t eating much.
So, despite gluten-free meals costing more on average, they provide them at a cheaper rate, meaning the other children are subsidizing the gluten-free children, but the school feels this is fair and delivers equality of opportunity to all.
Equity scenario: Children from low-income families are provided free school meals, and meals are adjusted to accommodate students with specific dietary needs or allergies.
Equality scenario: The school offers the same meals to all students, at the same rate to all students, regardless of their individual nutritional needs or economic backgrounds.
13. Disaster Response
When a natural disaster occurs, the response can be viewed through the lens of equity vs equality.
An equality approach would distribute aid evenly to all affected areas, disregarding the severity of impact or vulnerability of communities.
On the other hand, an equity approach might prioritize aid to communities that were hardest hit or had less resources to cope with the disaster.
This would ensure those most in need received the help they required. In healthcare, they might call this a ‘triaged’ approach.
Equity scenario: Disaster response prioritizes aid to communities that were hardest hit or had less resources to cope with the disaster.
Equality scenario: Disaster response distributes aid evenly to all affected areas, regardless of the severity of impact or vulnerability of communities.
14. Public Libraries
Public libraries can illustrate the principle of equity vs equality. Equality would mean offering the same resources and services to all patrons, irrespective of their individual needs.
However, an equity approach would adapt services to meet the specific needs of different groups.
For example, offering more children’s books in communities with more young families, or hosting job search workshops in areas with high unemployment rates.
Equity scenario: Libraries adapt services to meet the specific needs of different groups, such as offering more children’s books in areas with more young families.
Equality scenario: Libraries offer the same resources and services to all patrons, regardless of their individual needs or community context.
15. Basketball Draft
A hypothetical basketball league used to allow teams to pay whatever they wanted to players to incentivize them to join their team.
But over time, the organization running the league realized that the team that wins gets more funding from advertisers, which they spend on the best players, and before long, that team has managed to buy up all the good player.
This has caused inequality – three teams dominates the league, and the other teams linger at the bottom, rarely scraping out a win against the dominant teams. To address this, the league introduces a draft.
The lowest-ranking team from last season gets first pick of new players, and then the second-lowest ranking, and so on. The top team gets last pick, so they don’t get to choose the best player.
Interestingly, this concept – with the winner getting more money to fund a better team, which locks-in their dominance – is also visible in society with rich people buying shares that compound their wealth year-on-year. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer!
Equity scenario: A draft each year gives the lower-ranking teams first pick for the best new players.
Equality scenario: Teams are given equal chances to bid for players, with no interference from the league.
Equality and equity can both be seen to be fair. People who are privileged or rich might feel a bit upset that they often get fewer resources or support in the equity scenarios, and they might argue that equality is more fair than equity.
But without equity, we will fall down a spiral where the disadvantaged don’t get any help to pull them out of their situation, and sometimes we need acknowledgment that those who are less advantaged need a little more help to give them a fighting chance, or ‘equality of opportunity’.
Where to draw the line when distributing resources and support will always be a contentious debate because it’s often subjective and depends upon your philosophy toward fairness, freedom, and social obligation.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]