Thursday, May 17, 2012

What is Equity?

When discussing equity, very few people are actually able to articulate what it means. In fact, equity seems to suffer a fate worse than many other fair-intentioned words like sustainable development. For instance, while Reference Business describes sustainable development as a much maligned and misunderstood term, “equity” did not even make the cut for their dictionary. Obviously the concept has not percolated into everyday business practice. Equity has its origins in the latin aequits, or aequus that means even or fair. Most dictionaries equate “equity” to fairness or a lack of undesirable qualities such as prejudice, injustice, and partiality. While the word did not show up in Reference Business, some business and industrial psychologists study equity issues for their implications on employee motivation. For them “equity” describes whether an employee feels his/her compensation is commiserate with his/her contributions. In finance, “equity” is a measure of percentage ownership of a property based on one’s contribution towards its principal value. Both concepts are relevant in the development of a definition for socio-economic-environmental equity. Defining a nebulous term “equity” with another vague concept like fairness is not helpful. Fairness, too, is a subjective value and is not associated with visible indicators or tangible dimensions. In order to integrate socio-economic-environmental equity in our work, we have developed and use SEE-Equity Index.™ This Index uses a number of qualifiers and defines outcomes that allow us to measure equity. This blog entry presents three of the fundamental measures in the Equity Index; an unequal context, disproportional response, and high level of predictability. In 1991, I wrote for Professor Edward Blakely’s economic development class a paper titled “Creating Equity in an Inequitable Climate.” My research and strategies delved into correcting inequitable opportunities for wealth generation that were then accessible to minority residents of Oakland. This blog draws from that discussion but also builds on the policy work this author has the honor of doing with a diverse group of teachers, administrators and parents for the Seattle School District’s Race and Equity Committee. First and foremost, equity should not be confused or likened to equality. Equality or egalitarianism is a powerful concept and a lofty goal, but differs greatly from the premise behind equity. In an egalitarian society the many characteristics that might distinguish one person from the next (gender, age, weight, race, sexual preference, looks, height etc.) are irrelevant since everyone has equal access to schools, jobs, houses etc. Therefore in an egalitarian society, theoretically equal socio-economic-environmental infrastructure guarantees rather predictable and comparable results, irrespective of inherent differences between two people. The concept of equity makes sense ONLY if we acknowledge that we have never been an equal society and are in fact moving further away from a relatively egalitarian state in every sphere of society; economics, politics, health among many others. Within this reality, equity offers a proactive framework for tempering the growing disparities. An equitable society, therefore relies on unpredictable outcomes, since outcomes are not predicated by an applicant's race, social background, age etc. and instead on his/her skills. Equity presumes that while there will be certain differences in neighborhood or income characteristics (among others), this should not be predictive of a person’s success in academics, opportunity or worth. Equity underscores the belief that each one of us have equally high potential to perform and contribute to society in our respective fields of interest IF provided a supportive environment. Unfortunately, irrespective of where one is within the continental United States, opportunities for societal advancement and others including access to jobs, income levels, healthy food choices, housing, self-worth etc. are unequally distributed and accessible. Data also indicates that the discrepancies follow underlying trends in poverty distribution, gender, race etc. This predictability in outcomes reveals that we are enduring a rather inequitable society. If we start with these two basic attributes, inequity can be measured. A simple formula for calculating inequity is that of a negative relationship of 1:1 or higher between a desirable outcome (job, contract, salary etc) and a socio-economic-environmental condition. In other words, if being poor is a guarantee of failing in academia (being poor=academic failure) then this indicates that the academic climate is inequitable. If not corrected, this academic climate will unfairly commit students from poor families to a never-ending intergenerational cycle of poverty, limited access to opportunity, poor health and other ills. Therefore, equity inherently challenges concepts that promote equality other than perhaps, within a court of law. So how do we move towards an equitable society - making sure that resources are distributed EQUALLY between different socioeconomic groups? To the contrary, within an inequitable society, programs that distribute resources or benefits equally actually perpetuate inequity. For instance, for an impoverished child and one from a middle class neighborhood to succeed within an excellent academic climate, the former will need help in additional sectors (social, psychological, health, nutrition etc). The public investment that the impoverished child will need in order to live up to his/her potential will therefore be significantly higher than the other child. Thus redressing inequities must be accompanied by a deliberate effort to redistribute resources to temper the differences and compensate for the structural systems that assure success of certain groups over others. The concept of equity is thus fundamentally antithetical to equality and proportionality. Proportionality dictates that if a community is wealthier and generates more taxes, it must be accorded greater public benefits. This notion of proportionality aligns very closely to the feelings of “entitlement” or “privilege.” Privilege celebrates the self and discounts the advantages that the self has enjoyed from the systemic contributions of the rest of society towards its success. Privilege undervalues the complex social infrastructure in place that subsidizes each of our lives, either directly or indirectly. This may pertain to the advantages of living in a wealthy community, or to a family’s intergenerational wealth, education, and so on. Since work is differentially priced in our capitalistic economy, it can be extrapolated that the higher income brackets survive only because other contributions are valued lower. In reality, society cannot exist without the contributions of poorly valued services (such as school teachers, military staff and veterans, municipal workers, volunteer firefighters etc). If all occupations were valued equally, then there would be no disparities across skills. But this is not the premise of capitalism that drives the United States economy. It is within this context of differential value that the notion of entitlement flourishes. In turn it feeds into weak individual connections to the larger community and further erodes the concept of “common good.” In a climate of privilege, equity is impossible. Equity can succeed only when individuals can appreciate the personal, moral, social and economic benefits he or she has been accorded from his or her racial background, economic status, geographic origin etc. Moreover, one from a privileged scenario must then desire to “give back” to their silent champions and supporters. Therefore societies that have thriving equitable programs acknowledge that privilege exists, identifies causes and solutions, and measures their progress towards their equity goals. So if equity is not equal or proportional treatment and is not predictable, then what is it? It is unpredictable, measurable, and political. Since there is no empirical ratio that is a representation of equity, setting equity goals is a political process that must be decided by decision makers as well as those affected. Therefore it is crucial to carefully select those who get involved and who benefit from equity programs. From staff that defines the policy and distributes the financing for the program, through those who service and are contracted through the program, to finally those who are invited into these discussions, there must be a consistent commitment and assessment of equitable benefits and participation at each step of this process. It is ironic that in a society renowned for its civic and volunteer activities any government policies that are directed at redistributing resources (one of the main functions of taxation) are met with vehement opposition and is likened at worst to socialism and in the best of terms, with government high-handedness. Despite this apathy towards equity, we conclude with general optimism regarding the longevity of the term. In ”Words that Sell,” Futerra published the results of their focus groups’ reaction to terms often used in the sustainability lexicon. This provides some very interesting insights into how the typical non-technical population reacts to fashionable words. A conclusion that really stood out for this author is that terms that suggested community or shared interest appeared to resonate more with the focus groups over terms associated with individual or personal accountability. Also, words that created guilt were depreciated while others that were fun, had connotative meanings and were positive, even uplifting, received very favorable ratings. Unfortunately, “equity” was not included in this review. To this author however, “equity”, while not fun or engaging, is loaded with optimism and speaks to a shared responsibility. As there is greater appreciation for how everyone benefits through equitable programs and funding, it will become an intrinsic element of socio-economic-environmental development. A tool like our SEE-Equity Index™ helps measure apparent progress towards reducing disparities and predictability in life paths, can specify the type, and calculate the amount of investment that will be necessary to reach established equity goals. If Futerra’s research is accurate, equity is here to stay. Lets not lose it among other jargon, and bring it back to where it needs to be – upfront and center within social dialogue.

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