Conclusion: Equity 2.0

Targeted universalism is not only a policy strategy to get beyond the fight over universal versus targeted policy approaches, but it also serves as a way to overcome a narrow focus on equal treatment. With an unrelenting focus on outcomes-as-effect that trace back to structures-as-cause, targeted universalism radically reconceives the debates over equity and the narrow fights over equalizing expenditures.

JUMPING INTO CREATING change strategies based exclusively upon the presence of a disparity is inadequate and is a disservice to the people one intends to benefit. In different ways, universal and targeted strategies may promote and create a false understanding of equity. The false interpretation of equity in the universal approach assumes that different groups, different people, are situated in the same or in equivalent ways. In the targeted approach, there is an implicit assumption that only the targeted group needs support. Both of these assumptions are false.

Our focus and analysis is drawn to structures that enforce the marginality of different people. In the course of working with targeted universalism there is often discussion of “targeted groups.” This language is not technically correct—the structures are targeted, not people. If we are going to use the language of “targeted groups,” we should understand those groups to be people who are disadvantaged by particular structures—although disadvantaged in different ways, some people who are disadvantaged experience extreme harm and suffering and others are disadvantaged in less severe ways. This does not mean to suggest that “targeted groups” are similarly situated. In his classic book, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls concluded that policymakers must take account of the most marginalized, a notion encoded in his “difference principal.” Coming from a different direction, targeted universalism accomplishes the same end. Whereas the difference principle requires that policies “benefit the least well-off” in society, targeted universalism ensures that all groups—and people—achieve the universal goal. But it permits a variety and diversity of implementation strategies to accomplish that end, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. 

We do suggest that targeted universalism rejects the notion that identity groups are intrinsically different. We do suggest that targeted universalism responds to and attends to the empirical fact that there are persistent patterns of identities that experience similar disadvantage. These different patterns can involve different dimensions of othering and marginality—for example disparities data shows clear differences in the value of housing between predominantly white and Black neighborhoods, and differences between referrals to the police between white and Black students and between Black female and Black male students. 

We see a concerted effort to shift the goal from equality to equity. This language represents an important insight. However, the importance of using this different language is muted if our practices and strategies pursue a hollowed understanding of equity. To this end, it is helpful to think of equity along with belonging. When a hollow version of equity leads to equal treatment, we must challenge this with the question of belonging. Equity must also be approached with an expectation that the condition of the favored group is not the goal. To be sure, outcomes for a group that experiences less structural oppression are more favorable. However, it is often the case that everyone can aspire to better outcomes—and if groups that are further off can benefit from structural changes, then often groups facing lesser harms will also benefit from those changes. Closing a disparity between different groups of people is not necessarily the goal. Outcomes, not treatment, is the touchstone. In many cases, we strive for something higher for everyone.

Educational equity battles provide a helpful analogy. In the 1970s, the US Supreme Court held that unequal per-pupil funding formulas across school districts did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Part of the basis for this ruling was that educational provision, under the US Constitution, was not a fundamental right.

Advocates protesting unequal funding formulas targeted their efforts at state constitutions, many of which required that states provide a minimum level of educational provision. These efforts are collectively referred to as “equity” litigation, as they moved beyond a focus on whether school funding was equal or should be equalized toward achieving a minimum level of educational service as required by state constitutions. Thus, the focus was not on whether districts, under those states, provide equal funding, but whether the state was providing enough resources to offer an “adequate” education, for example. Providing an adequate education cannot be measured in terms of per-pupil expenditure, and the amount of spending required to provide that education might vary from district to district.

Targeted universalism provides an analogous approach. The goal is not, and should never be, equalization of resources, but achieving the universal goal. In some cases, this will require unequal resource expenditures. This might happen, for example, because of a greater proportion of disadvantaged students or English language learners. Providing equal—or even greater—provision to students who have additional needs is insufficient to help them achieve the universal goal. 

Targeted universalism provides an analogous approach. The goal is not, and should never be, equalization of resources, but achieving the universal goal. In some cases, this will require unequal resource expenditures. This might happen, for example, because of a greater proportion of disadvantaged students or English language learners. Providing equal—or even greater—provision to students who have additional needs is insufficient to help them achieve the universal goal. 

In the framework of targeted universalism, targeted strategies support a goal that is appealing to everyone: it is a universal goal. We recognize that there are strategic and ethical arguments that may place an urgent priority to implement targeted strategies that benefit groups “further off” from the goal-- those groups facing greater harm and suffering.

Creating a targeted universal framework demands an investment in human and financial resources. We acknowledge and promote the understanding that some groups need more help, and strategies tailored for that group. Furthermore, we know that after creating a targeted universal framework, it is likely that only some targeted strategies will be selected for implementation.

Most meaningfully, targeted universalism is both a way to operationalize belonging and create agendas for aligned transactional and transformative changes. Targeted universalism acknowledges that structural changes that benefit those experiencing greater harms likely hold benefits for many more people. In this way, promoting the implementation of a targeted strategy in the context and language of shared concerns resonates with a broad base of support. Popular support is lined up when an appeal is made to fulfill a goal to which all groups aspire. These universal goals also resonate with collectively shared values and beliefs. A particular strategy that will help one group meet the goal will garner greater popular support within the meaningful frame of collective aspirations and beliefs.

Relatedly, wrapping a targeted strategy with the language of shared aspirations and values operationalizes the fact that the challenges faced by the most marginalized among us can impede progress for everyone. This recognition is a powerful force that can dissolve barriers between in- and outgroups. One group’s interest is entangled with the condition and interests of another group. Through the practice of targeted universalism, the sentiment that “we should all belong” is built.

Targeted universal frameworks manifest the understanding that we are collectively better off when all groups advance towards a shared goal. We can only advance there together if we accommodate each other’s difference. In this way, we create belonging in thoughtful reflections of group differences in the spirit of care and mutual concern. Difference is not the root of othering. Rather, othering results from the consideration of difference in the spirit of concentrating privilege and/ or power. Targeted universalism’s transformative change agenda embraces and values difference: it is a productive use of difference toward a more fair and inclusive society