Categorizing Strategies


TARGETED UNIVERSALISM is an alternative framework to design policies and implementation strategies to achieve policy goals. Targeted universalism is sensitive to structural and cultural dynamics in ways that often elude both targeted and universal strategies. As such, it is also a way of communicating, a vernacular to build support for inclusive policies.

Despite what the term suggests, targeted universalism is more than a hybrid approach. It borrows the strengths and avoids the weaknesses of both targeted and universal approaches. Yet, it is also categorically distinct in both conception and execution. This distinction is important since a common misconception is that the targeted universalism framework is essentially “targeting within a universal” approach—i.e., pursuing targeted strategies that respond to the urgent needs of some people, and wrapping those strategies in a universal goal that holds wide appeal. But targeted universalism is more than that. It is an entirely distinctive platform for resolving problems that are often unaddressed or exacerbated by targeted or universal policies.

In contrast, targeted universalism programs are designed so that people, or groups, can achieve a universal policy goal, such as all people being adequately fed, producing housing for all those who need shelter, or having affordable health care for all. Targeted universalism is based on exploring the gaps that exist between individuals, groups, and places that can benefit from a policy or program and the aspiration-establishing goal. Targeted universalism policy formulations do more than close or bridge such gaps, but ultimately clarify and reveal the barriers or impediments to achieving the universal goal for different groups of people. The focus on gaps, while important, should be measured by reference to a universal goal, not just between groups. 

To understand these differences, we must first better understand the difference between universal and targeted strategies, their nuances and subtleties and their advantages and flaws. Finally, we will turn to a discussion on how targeted universalism strategies exceed the potential of both universal policies and targeted policies while exploiting their benefits and avoiding their weaknesses.

Concept 1: Universal Strategies 

Universal policies are those that aspire to serve everyone without regard to group membership, status, or income. They often establish a goal or minimum protection for the general population. For example, national universal health care programs, such as single-payer systems, apply to everyone in the jurisdiction; there are no other qualifying standards that must be met, besides, possibly, citizenship in that jurisdiction. Similarly, the Fair Labor Standard Act’s minimum wage policies provide a uniform floor of benefits irrespective of group membership, such as race, religion, or sexual orientation.2

Universal approaches have been developed and applied in a wide range of policy contexts to address critical social problems, from health care to unemployment insurance to education. Broadbased social programs, such as Social Security’s unemployment insurance or old age benefits, are often referenced as the paradigmatic form of policy universalism. The assumption is everyone who meets certain work requirements is eligible for the program, and the program provides the same protections regardless of status or group membership (see Table 1). Similarly, free, universal public education is generally seen as an emblematic universal policy.

Universal policies have been defined as those that “guarantee a uniform floor of rights or benefits for all persons or, at least, offers guarantees of a set of rights or benefits to a broad group not defined according to identity axes.”3 Accordingly, universal policies generally apply to everyone, to all groups, within the policymaker’s or administrator’s jurisdiction. That does not mean, however, that all universal policies work the same way.

There are many gradations between universalistic policies. Some universal policies are truly universal, applying equally to everyone within a jurisdiction. Others are broadly universal, exempting or excluding some groups within a jurisdiction. And others are conditionally universal, depending on certain qualifying conditions or fees. 

Universal suffrage, a basic principle of modern democracy, protects the right to vote irrespective of gender, race, or religion. Nonetheless, universal suffrage is generally restricted to adults attaining some age of majority, such as 18 or 21. In that respect, even this broadly universal policy excludes many people. Similarly, both free, universal public education and old age benefits, such as those provided by Social Security, depend on age qualifications, with the latter beginning at age 62. In addition, the benefit levels provided by Social Security’s old age provisions depend upon the contributions made to the program, which in turn depend upon prior working life. 

Even minimum wage laws, which ostensibly provide a uniform floor of benefits, typically exempt certain occupations (such as tipped employees) and sometimes minor workers. In this way, such laws are broadly or conditionally universal, but not necessarily truly universal. 

Universal policies have many advantages. The appeal of the Universal Basic Income (UBI) is that it applies equally to everyone, irrespective of group status, but also of need, previous employment, or wealth.4 Its universal scope means that there is less opportunity for a demagogic politician to rail against such a policy on the basis that it is a giveaway for special interests, or that the government is siding with one group against another. By providing the same benefit to everyone equally, a UBI is less likely to feed resentment within one segment of the population to another. 

For these reasons, universal approaches are more durable politically and judicially.5 By providing protections to everyone, without respect to group membership within the class, universal approaches enjoy a broader and more resilient base of political support and are less likely to be viewed as benefiting a particular group. Moreover, as legal scholars have documented, universal approaches are less likely to be construed narrowly by courts and judges.5

Despite their scope, many universalistic policies have their genesis in problems that were disproportionately affecting specific groups or particular segments of the population. The aforementioned tactical advantages and the greater resilience of universalistic policy design has motivated policymakers to broaden policy responses to targeted problems. Consider, as two examples of this, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the adoption of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Both examples illustrate the particular advantage of a universalistic policy design frame. 

The FMLA was a major legislative achievement of the Clinton administration.7 The legislative effort began with recognition that new parents lacked federal employment protections if they wanted or needed to take time off of work to care for their infants. Evidence was gathered and presented that children and families benefited from having some baseline protections lacking in the United States, especially by comparison to other advanced nations. In its initial iteration, the legislation required employers to permit parents to take at least 12 weeks of leave without fear of termination or risk of dismissal. The final bill, however, was broadened and extended its protections not only to parents of children, but the care of older parents or spouses. Despite arising out of a pressing, and more narrowly framed policy problem, the FMLA was broadened to include benefits for people without children, and thus made into a broadly universal policy (see Table 1), serving the universal goal of employment stability despite urgent family caretaking needs.ii

Another example of a universalistic solution to a targeted problem was the multi-decade effort to curtail the racially discriminatory effects of the poll tax as a qualification for voting. This solution ultimately resulted in the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, which prohibited the use of a poll tax. Poll taxes were typically used by Southern states to make it more difficult for the poor, but especially poor Black Americans, to vote. Before the adoption of the amendment, many anti-poll tax advocates had sought a federal anti-discrimination law that would have scrutinized the use of the poll tax when used to disenfranchise Black voters. By creating a blanket prohibition, rather than an antidiscrimination standard, as many of the anti-poll tax advocates initially sought, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment solved a problem disproportionately faced by a racial minority with a universal policy.8 In this form, the constitutional amendment enjoyed broader support, including from white voters who were also impacted by such laws. Similarly, the National Voter Registration Act and the Help America Vote Act are both examples of voting legislation that is universal in scope, despite addressing problems confronted by particular communities and groups, including the issues arising from the 2000 presidential election.9

Universal approaches are not defined by the problems they are attempting to solve, but by their scope of coverage or application, and by how they establish or provide broadly uniform minimums or protections. Just like minimum wage laws, the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, Twenty-Fourth Amendment, and the FMLA apply regardless of status or need. Moreover, the broader, universalistic policy frame made each of these laws more politically popular and durable. 

Universal policies are lauded for their tactical advantages, but they suffer a number of disadvantages as well. Universal policies are perceived—and not unjustifiably so—as entailing greater costs on account of greater benefits.10 Where these benefits are not minimum legal protections, but involve treasury outlays or higher pay or benefits, those costs can be directly passed on to taxpayers or consumers. As noted before, some UBI proposals would provide identical payments to everyone, regardless of income.11 Under a UBI, millionaires and billionaires would receive the same payments as the extreme poor. As such, universal policies are susceptible to the critique that they provide benefits to individuals or groups who do not need them, and therefore are inefficient or wasteful of collective resources such as government funds. 

Perhaps the most trenchant cost critique of universal policies arose in the debates in recent years over universal pre-K. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed a universal pre-K program. Debate over his proposal centered largely on the cost, which was estimated to be $12.3 billion each year.12 The estimated cost inclined many commentators to suggest that a targeted program for low-income children would be a better policy approach.13 However, the experience of the popular universal pre-K program instituted by the de Blasio administration in New York City illustrates the benefits, political and educational, of the universal approach.14

Another critique of universal approaches is that they exacerbate disparities and deepen inequality or injustice in society. This critique of universal policies is counterintuitive, but is well-supported by experience. Consider, for example, Massachusetts’ 2006 statewide universal health care law.15 The goal was to provide all of the state’s citizens with access to health care through a mixture of subsidies and penalties. As a result of the program, 96 percent of the state’s residents were able to obtain health insurance, above the national average of 84 percent.16 This indicates that the policy was a significant achievement in that many more people were able to obtain health insurance. The problem was that the provision of health insurance did not translate into access to health care for individuals or groups with inadequate access to health care providers.17 

For people who simply could not afford a doctor, the provision of insurance solved that problem. But for individuals residing in neighborhoods without or proximate to few or no health care providers, having health insurance did not solve the problem of lack of access to health care providers. For people in poor urban or rural communities with too few doctors or health care facilities, or who lacked a car or transportation to reach one, health insurance alone could not resolve that problem. Nor did it solve language barriers or other obstacles to securing access to a provider.

The result of the state’s universal program was to exacerbate racial disparities in health coverage. A few years into the program, 78.9 percent of the state’s Hispanic population was insured compared to 96 percent of the non-Hispanic white population.18 It has further been demonstrated that Hispanic groups with limited English proficiency and Spanish-speaking groups did not advance toward the goal of universal coverage. The universal policy assumed that one strategy—making health insurance available—would both enable everyone to have insurance and would improve access to health care. However, for many groups, additional strategies were needed. Increasing the availability of primary care physicians in underserved areas was a barrier for some groups. Some groups faced a language barrier in enrolling in the program and in finding care providers. Simplifying the enrollment process, providing assistance in finding care providers, and helping to navigate the health care system is necessary to help reach underserved populations. 

Universal approaches can exacerbate disparities by addressing only one barrier to achieving the goal. This was perhaps most evident in the original implementation of the Social Security Act’s various programs. Not only did the act exempt domestic and agricultural job classifications, occupations primarily filled by Black Americans and women, but it also provides benefits that scale to pay.19 Consequently, in a discriminatory labor market, the benefits of the program were dramatically uneven.20

In a similar vein, consider job training programs that typically focus on the provision of technical skills and credentials. The presumption is that technical skills and credentials are what blocks potential employees from finding employment. Barriers to jobs include not only technical and vocational skills, but soft skills and social skills needed to interview and land the job, knowledge of job openings, and transportation to a job or access to a car. A job training program that treats everyone the same may also exacerbates disparities.

While the potential for universal approaches to exacerbate or deepen group-based disparities is perhaps their most problematic feature, there is a more fundamental flaw. Universal strategies in practice often function like targeted strategies. All universal policies assume a norm or a universal situation. For example, the Social Security Act was implicitly designed to make changes that would lift up the conditions of a white, able-bodied, working age man. People who were disabled were less likely to benefit from the program. And people who were no longer of working age could not benefit from the program either. At the core of any universal approach is an implicit universal norm, assuming that everyone it attempts to serve is similarly situated. Therefore, in the end, when the policy is implemented, it only serves some or a few people— that is, it proves to be a targeted program.

The Massachusetts universal health care policy reflects this deficiency. For some groups, the only thing that stood between them and health care was health insurance. Groups with limited English proficiency needed health insurance, assistance with the enrollment process, and access to quality health care providers in their communities. Groups with low income needed health insurance and a cost-reduction mechanism for medical care. The universal policy, with its singular strategy, moved some to the goal, but left others behind.

Universal health care plans hold great appeal for many involved in social justice work. When implemented, the plans made solid measurable gains. However, there is an outstanding need for considering the underlying goal and the diverse array of barriers to that goal for specific groups within the general population.

Now that we have described universal policies in concept, as well as in their varying forms, presented a range of illustrative examples, and laid out their advantages and disadvantages, we turn to targeted policies for the same treatment.

CONCEPT 2: Targeted Strategies 

Targeted policies single out specific populations or make provisions for selected groups, generally, to the exclusion of others. Benefits or protections based on targeted policies depend on group membership or another categorical basis of eligibility, such as status or income. In this respect, they neither set nor pursue a universal strategy or goal, at least not explicitly.21 Rather, the policy is tailored to the needs of the people it aims to serve or protect. This produces a binary program design, where members of the target groups benefit while members of other groups, no matter how well-off, do not receive the benefit or protection. This is often a source of claims of unfairness.

Like universal policies, targeted policies are ubiquitous and broadly familiar. Programs such as the Food Stamp Program (now redesigned as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP) epitomize targeted policies, providing food to low-income families who might be at risk of hunger or malnutrition. As we will discuss, each of these strategies may prove insufficient to achieve their policy goal, and not simply because of inadequate funding. Any program or policy with means-tested eligibility requirements or other income parameters are likely examples of targeted policies. For example, in contrast to a UBI, a negative income tax would provide benefits only to the lowest income brackets, and thus would condition benefits on income eligibility. 

Targeted strategies may also provide public benefits to particular groups, such as veterans or people with disabilities. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, may be one of the most successful targeted policies in American history, providing subsidized education, loans, and health care to veterans returning from World War II.22

Targeted policies are prominent in civil rights legislation. Antidiscrimination norms are enacted because of the prevalence of discrimination on the basis of group membership. Additionally, many features of antidiscrimination law provide for special treatment for the targeted group. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires not only equal treatment, but also special accommodations for persons with disabilities, including the provision of ADA accessible easements, entrances, and seating in public accommodations. The accommodation provisions are more than simple equal treatment mandates; they require affirmative accommodation by government, employers, or public businesses.23

Similarly, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 did not simply prohibit discrimination on the basis of age, but it specifically extended its protections to workers “over the age of 40.”24 This was set in recognition of a targeted problem. Namely, among others reasons, that “older workers find themselves disadvantaged in their efforts to retain employment, and especially to regain employment, when displaced from jobs.”25 Thus, by targeting workers over the age of 40 with special protections, the ADEA is a targeted policy. 

Perhaps the most well-known and controversial class of targeted policies are affirmative action policies, which, in the contexts of employment, admissions, and government procurement, establish targets or soft goals for the hiring, contracting, enrollment, or promotion of underrepresented or historically disadvantaged groups. In a notable example, the University of California at Davis medical school set an enrollment quota of 16 seats for disadvantaged racial minorities in the early 1970s.26 Other examples include specific set-asides, such as procurement or contract dollar targets, as enacted in the State of Ohio’s Minority Business Enterprise Program. 

While some may think that distributing access to college, jobs, or other limited resources cannot or should not be based on race, the distribution of such public or private goods based on grades or test scores results in an uneven distribution of such goods. Nonetheless, the assumption is that the latter such distributions are neutral, fair, or “meritorious,” whereas programs such as affirmative action are not. Whether the selection criteria is based on race or some seemingly neutral merit criteria, the program is still “targeted.” 

Despite the association of targeted policies with protections for certain racial or other minorities, most targeted policies or approaches do not rely on group-based membership. Perhaps the most famous bundle of programs that embodied targeted approaches are the set of programs developed under the auspices of the so-called War on Poverty. These include the aforementioned Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created the Community Action Program, Job Corps, and Volunteers in Service to America. The ESEA created a new channel for providing federal funding for primary and secondary education for underresourced communities and school districts. Although, in practice, nearly every school district received so-called Title I funds, the funds are ostensibly targeted at the most underresourced districts.27

As suggested by the resilience of universal policies, targeted programs are more vulnerable by comparison. In addition to the long-running attack on affirmative action as “reverse racism,” the entire War on Poverty program came under sustained political assault in the 1970s, an attack which continued through the ’80s and early ’90s. In this environment, some wondered whether anti-poverty programs should be more narrowly targeted to apply only to “the truly disadvantaged.”28 Others wondered if the targeted nature of these programs made them particularly susceptible to political attack, some calling to mind the nineteenth century poorhouses and other policies that proved ultimately unsustainable for similar reasons.29

To some politicians and citizens, singling out a particular group to receive benefits, while excluding others, may seem unfair. An ethos of distributing resources equally is strongly held in our polity. But even when carefully justified, demagogic politicians can use the unequal distribution to claim that government is unfair, or taking sides. The refrain frequently leveled against social welfare programs, such Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or SNAP, is exactly that, and has been the operating logic underwriting decades of cutbacks in social welfare programs. 

If a targeted policy directs focus to these individuals, negative stereotypes and beliefs about those groups undermine support for an “underserving” out-group. Many of the most marginalized groups are also the least favored in the larger public imagination. Too often, the prevailing assumption is that the condition of that group lies with them rather than with society or the means by which benefits are distributed. For that reason, targeted programs for the elderly are more likely to be well-received and politically sustainable than targeted benefits for marginalized populations based on race or ethnicity. Means-tested programs are susceptible to the erosion of political will due to powerful and incorrect stereotypes as well as the averred unfairness of unequal benefit provision. Slashing social welfare programs, in particular, is a top policy objective and refrain of conservative politics.

We can see the distinction between popular support for strategies that target out-groups versus in-groups—particularly with corporations—when comparing federal social welfare spending versus corporate subsidies. For example, while $59 billion was spent on social welfare programs in 2014, $92 billion was spent on corporate subsidies.30 Social welfare programs were publicly and consistently attacked, while corporate tax credits were largely left out of any public spending debate. Similarly, popular housing subsidies that primarily benefit the upper-middle class and affluent, including the mortgage interest deduction, may cost the treasury hundreds of billions of dollars per year.31 In contrast, the federal government spends only a fraction of that amount (estimated at $46 billion per year) on affordable housing. Moreover, President Obama’s 2017 budget estimated that it would cost only $1 billion more a year over 10 years to completely eliminate homelessness in the US.32

Popular support for social welfare programs has eroded by associating those programs with outgroup stereotypes that run against the grain of popular societal values of independence, autonomy, and individual motivation. Such inaccurate and brutalizing stereotypes include poor people being cast as “lazy” and the racialized and gendered stereotype of the “welfare queen.” Since the 1970s welfare support programs were attacked with a discourse tying racial stereotypes to such programs. This discourse ties the negative way people unconsciously feel about stereotyped groups to their decision to support or oppose a policy.33

Despite the perception that many targeted policies, especially those associated with the War on Poverty, have failed, targeted policies tend to be successful in achieving their policy aims when fully implemented on a sustained basis. The tailored nature of the targeted policy means that it has a good chance at success. Targeting strategies for particular groups can produce measurable gains, as the GI Bill demonstrates. Consider, as another example, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The tax credit exclusively targets working families under a particular income level. Those families, representing nearly one out of every five tax filers in the US, received a tax credit averaging $2,194 in 2010.34 This policy singles out a particular group and provides financial advantage to the group. The EITC has lifted approximately 4.7 million children above the poverty line. 

Now that we have described and contrasted universal and targeted policies, we will turn to targeted universal approaches. 

CONCEPT 3: Targeted Universal Strategies

While they each have their advantages, universal and targeted policies are not only politically fraught, but have proved incapable of addressing, let alone solving, many of our most enduring social, economic, and environmental problems.35 Having acknowledged this fact, many legal and political scholars have lamented the limits of prevailing policy design and policy imagination.36 There is another way: targeted universalism. Targeted universalism is an alternative policy framework to design and implement policies that can achieve critical policy goals and bring us closer to our collective aspirations. Targeted universalism platforms are designed to enable everyone to enjoy the realization of a policy goal. The implementation strategies derived from this platform are designed to advance everyone to the universal goal.

Targeted universalism is sometimes incompletely understood as a platform that takes the best parts of targeted strategies and universal strategies— avoiding the problems and maintaining the advantages of each.37 In that respect, targeted universalism might seem exactly like Theda Skocpol’s call for “targeting within universalism.” Indeed, it is very similar—the differences lie in very close inspection of targeted universalism—the insight we hope to provide here. Targeted universalism is categorically different, in both concept and execution.

First, targeted universalism is outcome-oriented, and the processes are directed in service of the explicit, universal goal. 

Many policy efforts are designed to be either a targeted or universal strategy, but the goal is not an explicit part of the public debate or the way it is discussed in the public sphere—there is not an effort to consistently and coherently articulate what the strategy intends to accomplish. For example, in the context of health care, the Obama administration’s overwhelming emphasis in promoting the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was the lack of insurance coverage for tens of millions of Americans. But, as the more recent debates over Medicare for all or single-payer as well as the experience of the Massachusetts health care law illustrate, health insurance is only one facet of the problem. Extending health insurance to millions of additional Americans has not come close to accomplishing the goal of universalizing access to health care. Extending insurance is an important but incomplete strategy to achieve the goal. From public debate around the ACA, it seems that policymakers either conflated health insurance with wellness and quality health care or were simply narrowly focused on a competitive market-based arrangement to provide health insurance to a larger number of people who were locked out of the market. In targeted universalism, a great deal of attention should be granted toward the identification of the universal goal. 

Second, targeted universalism rejects a single or even a limited number of targeted implementation strategies toward a universal goal. Too often, policymakers develop a one-size-fits-all remedy to achieve policy goals, failing to understand that different communities and populations have different needs. Targeted universalism seeks the development of a range of implementation strategies. The implementation strategies are tailored to address both the structures that impede different groups and populations and to affirmatively develop structures that promote the desired outcome for different populations. The strategies are targeted, but the goal is always universal. 

If the goal was trying to make health insurance available to all, then one could say that the Massachusetts experiment was successful. If the goal was to make sure everyone had access to a health care worker, it was not. Of course, the goal might have been to provide health care to all communities and all people. Even then, providing access would not necessarily be adequate. This example illustrates two critical aspects of targeted universalism: First, it is important to be clear on what the universal goal is, and distinguish it from subsidiary or intermediate goals. Second, the “universal” in targeted universalism is not the implementation strategy or application. Targeted universalism does not aim to reach all people in the same way. 

Targeted universalism rejects a blanket universal strategy, which is likely to be indifferent to the reality that different groups are situated differently relative to the institutions and resources of society. It also rejects the claim of formal equality that would treat all people the same as a way of ignoring difference— recall that universal strategies may not achieve universal goals. For this reason, targeted universalism is sometimes referred to as “Equity 2.0”—a framework to realize the full potential of pursuing equity. It embraces difference and disables any attempt to legitimize an inequitable status quo through treating everyone the same, with the same solutions, and the same attention. With an unwavering commitment to the universal goal, targeted universalism platforms require a diversity of strategies to advance all people toward it. It is not narrowly concerned with the disparities between groups.

Consider, for example, the series of popular images used to depict differences between equity and equality. In this primer we present various versions of these graphics accompanied by commentaries of the different visual metaphors. For example, a popular image and metaphor is a fence that obscures a ball game or natural sight that everyone might like to see (see p. 12). Taller individuals may be able to see over the fence, but shorter people or children may lack such a view. The fence takes everyone as they are and treats everyone equally, yet it has an unequal impact. 

The general analysis suggested by this familiar equity imagery attempts to move us beyond a narrow conception of equality, but it is problematic in several respects. As our analysis reflects, such imagery suggests that the problem lies with the difference in height and not the structure in which height becomes a barrier. Further imagery has been developed to address this deficiency in part by, for example, removing the barrier instead of boosting an individual’s height or replacing the barrier with a transparent barrier. 

A different representation might illustrate three people of the same height, but one standing on a mound, one in a hole, and the other on flat land. In this depiction, it becomes clear that difference in outcomes is baked into the structure and is not due to particular characteristics of individuals. One could continue to play with this example, and several organizations have. The limitation with the approach of simply removing the barrier is that it suggests we can function without structures. Individuals are necessarily situated within structures and systems—malleable as those may be. Furthermore, structures are not neutral. In addition, the spectators should have a role in not just seeing the game but in constructing it.iii

We might achieve the goal of permitting everyone to view it by installing a stool or a bench at an appropriate distance, or provide viewer holes through the fence. Even then, however, some people, such as those with vision impairments, may not be able to see the view. In India, a group of blind students campaigned for a small model of the Taj Mahal so that they could apprehend the structure.38

Targeted universalism can address such barriers by making a structural change that removes a barrier and by providing shorter-term fixes and structural supports for people suffering under the barrier. Targeted universalism as Equity 2.0 moves beyond debates over equal treatment with a recognition of a shared goal or universal aspiration.

A shared goal instills a sense of shared aspiration and reinforces collective obligations. It counters forces that divide in- and out-groups. This is critical both at a strategic and conceptual level. It is strategic in that a shared goal of interest to all groups can diffuse potential discursive attacks, singling out particular groups and weakening the broader policy. It is also conceptually necessary given the flaws in both targeted and universalistic approaches.

The emphasis on a shared aspiration raises the expectations of all groups and does not set the goal based upon what more privileged groups already have. For example, many interventions in education focus on the performance gap—a disparity— between white students and their Latinx and Black counterparts. However, a shared goal would exceed the current performance of white students as well rather than use white performance as a baseline. This goal may set a new standard of performance that all students have yet to benefit from.

In fact, this is one of targeted universalism’s most important features. While the gap between groups is important, it is of limited insight or value. Relative equality between groups matters but is incomplete. One could close the gap between groups with none of them getting close toward the universal goal. Indeed, instead of achieving the universal goal, one could perversely reduce all groups to the lowest common condition of the most marginalized group, and the disparity between groups would vanish. Within targeted universalism, intergroup disparities should be used only as a diagnostic tool to assess relative performance, and not as a policy focus.

In the context of a shared aspiration and universal goal, we can investigate the ways different students are situated within the intersections of various systems that shape educational performance, including housing stability, food security, and transportation. In so doing, we might find that poor African American and white students, homeless students, and newly arrived immigrant students need affordable housing near the school and changes in enrollment criteria so they may be able to stay in the same school all year long. This will go a long way to helping their achievement of performance outcomes. 

We might find that poor white students and poor Asian students need better transportation to get safely from their communities to the school. In this way, when we look for implementation strategies, we are not taking for granted groups of people identified in disparities data and groups on either side of “gaps” in disparities data. Rather, we see the disparities as a signal of a structural problem and move straight away to examining all the different structures that shape student outcomes.

Consider the brilliant work being done to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. These efforts reorganize the systems and change the structures perpetuating the problem of youth of color being swept up into the criminal justice system. This work is characterized by a set of powerful, targeted interventions, many of which have realized meaningful gains. Some interventions have centered on bringing practices of restorative justice into schools as a way to resolve what may otherwise be conflicts referred to police. 

For example, see the “Restorative Practices” report detailing the implementation of restorative justice in Alexandria City Public Schools.39 There are many organizations advancing this strategy as a strategic intervention that interrupts what has come to be known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The Advancement Project is one organization that has lifted up the potential power of restorative justice as a racial justice strategy—an intervention strategy that is a systemic approach to changing the criminal justice system.40

While students of color are the primary students facing the violence of the criminal justice system and its role in schools, there are other groups similarly situated with respect to the presence of police and the criminal justice system being combined with the education system: namely students with mental disabilities and abused/traumatized students. In this way, the strategy of restorative justice, teacher training, and changes in state and local policy disadvantage those students, and those students are the target of these interventions.

These targeted strategies serve a universal goal: all students should be educated in safe environments that nurture intellectual and emotional intelligence. Targeted strategies for youth of color to attain this goal include interventions to eradicate the schoolto-prison pipeline, among many other strategies. 

For other groups of students, such as students in affluent suburbs with high-performing schools, there may need to be an infusion of mentoring or counseling programs, additional expertise and training for teachers and principals to integrate empathy into their educational environments, and additional adult support for the learning environment. All groups can benefit and be supported by interventions to meet this universal goal.

While targeted universalism acknowledges different strategies needed for everyone to be able to benefit from reaching the goal, the platform also acknowledges and directs the prioritizing of different needs, different strategies, and a fair—rather than even—distribution of resources. Often these are the very real constraints that emerge on the ground as targeted universal strategies are designed and implemented.



  • 2. Although some minimum wage statutes do provide occupational and age-based exemptions, among others.
  • 3. Samuel R. Bagenstos, “Universalism and Civil Rights (with Notes on Voting Rights After Shelby),” Yale Law Journal 123, no. 8 (Jun 1, 2014), 2842. https://www.yalelawjournal. org/essay/universalism-and-civil-rights-withnotes-on-voting-rights-after-shelby.
  • 4. Zachary Quintero. “An Overview of Universal Basic Income: Discussion on the Benefits of a Single System Welfare Standard.” (2014).
  • 5. a. b. Bagenstos, “Universalism and Civil Rights,” 2848.
  • 7. “Family and Medical Leave Act,” Wage and Hour Division (WHD), U.S. Department of Labor, accessed December 11, 2017, https://
  • ii. The FMLA could have been made more “universal” by extending its coverage to a broader range of kinship relationships, but the final bill was broadened from its originally targeted form.
  • 8. Bagenstos, “Universalism and Civil Rights,” 2843-4.
  • 9. Ibid. According to most scholars, anti-discrimination approaches, while universalist to the extent that they often treat members of all groups equally, are not generally understood as universalist. By “calling attention to the identity status,” anti-discrimination laws have a different dynamic, perception, and understanding than approaches that do not require any reference to an identity group. Anti-discrimination provisions, while universalist in scope, are generally regarded as targeted sets of protections, as the debate over the poll tax illustrates. In this regard, distinguishing universal approaches from non-universal approaches can be difficult, and there is no broad consensus on this point.
  • 10. Theda Skocpol, “Targeting Within Universalism: Politically Viable Policies to Combat Poverty in the United States,” in The Urban Underclass, by Christopher Jencks and Paul E. Peterson (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2001), 411-436
  • 11. John O’Farrell, “A no-strings basic income? If it works for the royal family, it can work for us all,” The Guardian, January 7, 2016, accessed December 11, 2017, https://goo. gl/yFfMVy
  • 12. Sarah Trumble and Lanae Erickson, “Making Pre-K Matter: Instilling a Mobility Mentality” (Washington, D.C.: Third Way, October 1, 2014); For another critique, including on cost, see: David J. Armor and Sonia Sousa, “The Dubious Promise of Universal Preschool,” National Affairs 38, no. Winter 2019, accessed February 28, 2019, https://www.
  • 13. Trumble and Erickson, “Making Pre-K Matter: Instilling a Mobility Mentality”; Armor and Sousa, “The Dubious Promise of Universal Preschool.”
  • 14. Christina Veiga, “New York City Gets a Gold Medal for Pre-K Quality and Access, New Report Finds,” Chalkbeat, January 23, 2019, ny/2019/01/23/new-york-city-gets-a-goldmedal-for-pre-k-quality-and-access-new-report-finds/.
  • 15. So-called “Romneycare.” The Affordable Care Act was, in part, modeled on the Massachusetts program. See Michael Costa and David Spackman, “An Act Providing Access to Affordable, Quality, Accountable Health Care” (Boston: Greenberg Traurig, LLP, 2006).
  • 16. Sharon Long, “What is the Evidence on Health Reform in Massachusetts and how might the Lessons from Massachusetts Apply to National Health Reform?” Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2010). https://; James Maxwell et al., “Massachusetts’ Health Care Reform Increased Access to Care for Hispanics, but Disparities Remain,” Health Affairs 30, no. 8 (Aug 1, 2011), 1451-1460. doi:10.1377/ hlthaff.2011.0347. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih. gov/pubmed/21821562; Benjamin D. Sommers, Sharon K. Long and Katherine Baicker, “Changes in Mortality After Massachusetts Health Care Reform: A Quasi-Experimental Study,” Annals of Internal Medicine 160, no. 9 (May 6, 2014), 585. doi:10.7326/ M13-2275. pubmed/24798521; Massachusetts Health Care Reform: Six Years Later (Menlo Park: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2012).
  • 17. Bobby Milstein, Jack Homer, and Gary Hirsch, “Are Coverage and Quality Enough? A Dynamic Systems Approach to Health Policy,” American Journal of Public Health, October 27, 2009.
  • 18. Maxwell et al., “Massachusetts’ Health Care Reform Increased,” 1451.
  • 19. See Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006).
  • 20. But, as earlier noted, the Social Security program was not truly universal in the first place (See Table 1). But even where programs are ostensibly designed to be universal, they are based upon inaccurate assumptions. In complex systems, where there are multiple reinforcing constraints and dynamic relationships, policy interventions may produce inequitable outcomes.
  • 21. Although, there may be an implicit recognition of extreme need or historical disadvantage.
  • 22. Suzanne Mettler, “How the G.I. Bill Built the Middle Class and Enhanced Democracy” (Cambridge, MA: Scholars Strategy Network, January 2012).
  • 23. Such an approach could also be the product of a targeted universalism analysis, since it seeks to get everyone to the universal goal of access.
  • 24. “The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967,” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 1967, accessed December 11, 2017, adea.cfm.
  • 25. Ibid.
  • 26. “Affirmative Action,” United States Department of Labor, accessed December 11, 2017, The challenge to UC Davis’ enrollment quota resulted in the Bakke case brought to the Supreme Court in 1978 where the court ruled 5-4 that UC Davis had set up an unconstitutional quota system. In what he called a “grand compromise,” Justice Lewis Powell ruled that while the program was unconstitutional that a “diversity rationale” could be used, in 2which race could be one of other factors to achieve diverse student bodies
  • 27. Goodwin Liu, “How the Federal Government Makes Rich States Richer,” Funding Gaps 2006 (Jan 8, 2013), 1-16. doi:10.1503/cmaj.109-4372.
  • 28. The Truly Disadvantaged was a book authored by William Julius Wilson in 1987. It was influential in changing the debate about the causes of concentrated poverty in cities and provided new insights for public policy solutions. Although published almost 30 years ago, its arguments are held up by thinkers as relevant to current policy debate. For an interview with William Julius Wilson, see Wilmot Allen, “Urban Poverty in America: The Truly Disadvantaged Revisited,” The Huffington Post, August 25, 2014, accessed December 11, 2017,
  • 29. Skocpol, “Targeting Within Universalism.”
  • 30. Mike P. Sinn, “Government Spends More on Corporate Welfare Subsidies than Social Welfare Programs,” Think by Numbers, accessed December 11, 2017, E9xeTE. A study of similar patterns in 2002; see Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven, Corporate Welfare Update (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2002).
  • 31. Robert Collinson, Ingrid Gould Ellen, Jens Ludwig, “Low-Income Housing Policy,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper no. 21071 (Apr 2015). https://www.
  • 32. Matthew Desmond, “How Homeownership Became the Engine of American Inequality,” The New York Times, May 9, 2017, https:// how-homeownership-became-the-engine-of-american-inequality.html.
  • 33. Note that under the Carter administration new technology enabled data to be gathered on “welfare fraud.” This technology and data changed administrative practices and created a disciplinary regime associating criminality and fraud with welfare and its recipients.
  • 34. 2010 Earned Income Credit (EIC) Table, 2010.
  • 35. Bagenstos, “Universalism and Civil Rights,” 2841.
  • 36. Skocpol, “Targeting Within Universalism.”
  • 37. It’s useful to note that in previous work we have described targeted universalism as a combination of the strengths of targeted and universal policies—while avoiding the weaknesses of each approach. However, as the framework has evolved alongside the effort to create structural belonging, it has become clear that the potential of targeted universalism exceeds either of those traditional policy approaches. Targeted universalism is a means to operationalize belonging.
  • iii. This is one of the important distinctions between inclusion and belonging. Targeted universalism is an opportunity to put belonging “on the ground” in practice. In inclusion, the structure that similarly situates people is critical. In belonging, the structure is cocreated by the participants. This is one of the reasons the process for defining the universal goal must be taken seriously, rather than assumed.
  • 38. Mihika Basu, “IIT-Bombay Tech Will Help Blind See Taj Mahal,” DNA India, July 25, 2010, report-iit-bombay-tech-will-help-blind-see-tajmahal-1414189.
  • 39. “Restorative Practices,” Alexandria City Public Schools, 2019, http://www.acps.k12.
  • 40. “Restorative Justice Now: A Community Review of Alexandria City Public Schools’ Implementation of Restorative Justice” (Washington, D.C.: Tenants and Workers United; Alexandria United Teens; The Alexandria Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Advancement Project, June 2016),