Creating a Targeted Universalism Framework

CONCEPTUALLY INTUITIVE and appealing, targeted universalism is much more difficult to develop and implement. This section of the primer sets out a straightforward five-step process for developing targeted universalism policies. Subsequent sections of the primer will address more challenging elements set out within this framework in more detail, serving as a sort of troubleshooting guide. 

STEP 1: Establish a universal goal based upon a broadly shared recognition of a societal problem and collective aspirations 

Like all policy solutions, targeted universalism begins with recognition of a societal problem or a collective aspiration. The problem is sufficiently persistent and intransigent that it calls for a policy response and cannot be addressed alone by markets or private actors. The heart of this step is to establish a universal goal in relation to the societal problem. This may be a source of confusion, so let us be especially clear on this point.

As noted in the footnote in the Introduction to this report, in some cases there is a lack of political consensus that a social, economic, or environmental problem or need exists. Even where such consensus exists, however, there is sometimes a lack of consensus or disagreement that the problem or need warrants or merits a policy response.41 For practical or ideological reasons, policymakers disagree that the government can help alleviate or address the problem. A targeted universalism platform cannot resolve policy disagreements in these respects.iv It can, however, forge a policy pathway forward where there is broad agreement that a problem exists and, furthermore, that the problem warrants a policy response, but there is disagreement or uncertainty about what to do. 

Where there is broad consensus that a problem or need exists, and that a policy response is appropriate, a targeted universalism platform is the approach that has the best chance for creating a sustainable policy intervention to actually solve the problem or address the need. To do so, the first step is to clearly articulate the universal goal reflected by the collective aspiration or broad need. 

As noted in the discussion on the various forms of “universal” policies above, there are varying forms of universalism. Some “universal” policies touch everyone within a jurisdiction, as with some forms of UBI. Others, however, might only apply to people of working age, as is the case with other forms of UBI or universal suffrage, which exclude minors or the very young. Similarly, universal basic education is aimed at the young, while universal old age insurance is aimed at the old. 

What is meant by “universal” must be worked out in relation to the problem or need. If the problem is hunger, then the universal goal might be that everyone is fed and has adequate nutrition. If the problem is homelessness, then the universal goal might be that everyone has shelter. If the problem is unsafe working conditions, then the universal goal might be that everyone has the benefit of minimum safety standards at work. 

Recall that the FMLA developed a universal policy response to the problem of work instability for new parents, by extending protections for families without children who need time off to take care of family members, such as parents. The societal problem need not be universal or even broadly experienced to warrant the articulation of a universal goal that reflects a collective aspiration. For example, a policymaker might begin with the recognition of disproportionate levels of hunger in rural communities. If decision-makers and advocates join forces to create a targeted universal framework and craft a universal goal that would serve this population, the universal goal might be that “everyone has adequate nutrition.” This is a universal goal in that it reflects collective aspirations and it is one that nearly all groups would accept, even urban populations that might not be suffering from hunger to the same degree—while serving those who might be—including the groups that were initially the focus of the policy. 

Most legislation contains a statement of purpose, a section that describes the main purpose or a set of purposes, usually near the beginning of a bill. Less often, however, such statements articulate a collective aspiration in the form of a universal goal. For example, the first two purposes provided in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) were “[t]o preserve and create jobs and promote economic recovery” and “to assist those most impacted by the recession.”42 The nation’s primary legislative response to the Great Recession, ARRA was focused on pulling the economy out of the recession, but also explicitly attempted to help those most immediately impacted by the recession.

Some policy goals can be viewed as strategies to achieve other deeper and sometimes tacit goals. For example, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare,” had as a statement of purpose “to improve access to and the delivery of health care services for all individuals, particularly low income, underserved, uninsured, minority, health disparity, and rural.”43 Providing health care services is a strategy to help people live a healthy life, rather than an end in and of itself. Refer back to our example of whether or not a policy of universalizing health insurance accomplishes the goal of providing access to health care, let alone this deeper goal. Had policymakers more carefully investigated the problem, they might have considered the full suite of strategies that could improve well-being and identify what health problems mean to people with day-to-day challenges. And, as we described, it would be clear that much more than health insurance is needed. 

In general, however, the goal is either explicitly stated as part of the policy or implicit in the program. It is important to contextualize any strategy or policy as an effort to reach a particular goal. Universal health care works to realize the goal of accessing quality health care or living a healthy life. The SNAP program, a means-tested benefit, is an effort to realize the goal of obtaining food required for good health for all families, and avoiding hunger and malnutrition. 

The articulation of the universal goal is the first step in a targeted universalism platform because it then serves as the basis for subsequent policy development. Without reference to the universal goal, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to assess progress and evaluate success. 

Given that policymakers represent constituents and not others outside of their jurisdiction, it is not a defect of universal goal setting that the universal goal may have geographic or jurisdictional limits. We would not expect a municipal government to legislate on behalf of another government, just as a central government would not legislate on behalf of another nation’s central government with respect to the problem of school funding or health care provision. By “universal,” we mean universal insofar as it applies to a policymaker’s jurisdiction. 

Within a jurisdiction, the objective is then to get all groups to the goal, not just the most politically powerful or most marginalized within a society. In establishing the universal goal, no group is favored except insofar as the problem has landed on the policy agenda.v Ultimately, the goal—whether reflective a collective aspiration or a response to a societal problem—is one that requires broad consensus.

STEP 2 Assess general population performance relative to the universal goal

With a universal goal in place, the next step in operationalizing a targeted universalism framework is a general performance measure for the overall population within the policymaker’s jurisdiction. Consistent with universalism, we must begin by understanding how well the overall population fares relative to the universal goal. 

For example, we might assess the percentage of the population that fails proficiency on performance exams, lacks health insurance, or is inadequately nourished. If we take exam performance, health insurance, or hunger as a serious matter, then measuring the general population relative to this standard reveals the extent and scope of any social problem. 

For example, we might assess the percentage of the population that fails proficiency on performance exams, lacks health insurance, or is inadequately nourished. If we take exam performance, health insurance, or hunger as a serious matter, then measuring the general population relative to this standard reveals the extent and scope of any social problem. 

It is important to note, however, that the general performance measure does not become the baseline for a targeted universalism framework—we should never aspire to merely close gaps to move everyone toward the universal goal. Rather, the general performance measure provides a context for understanding the extent of the problem. The general performance measure simply allows us to understand the depth of scope of the problem to be addressed, and forms the foundation for the development of targeted strategies. 

STEP 3 Identify groups and places that are performing differently with respect to the goal and disaggregate them

With the universal goal in mind, and the general performance measure relative to the universal goal available, the next step in a targeted universalism platform is to conduct a more granular assessment of how various subgroups perform relative to goal. A more detailed demographic and geographic analysis is necessary because the general population measure masks differential experiences of the problem relative to the universal goal. 

Any social or economic problem is likely to have uneven effects across any general population. Some problems are experienced more intensely by rural or urban populations; racial, ethnic and religious minorities; women; LGBTQ persons; or, people with disabilities. For example, the opioid crisis has been most acute in rural communities.44 Understanding how those effects are distributed is a prerequisite to crafting implementation strategies within targeted universalism platform. Without appreciating or fully recognizing that different groups perform differently with respect to the universal goal, we cannot understand why, let alone investigate, the causes of these outcomes. It is important when looking at this difference to understand this may say more about the structure and how opportunity is distributed than the nature of the group itself.

For example, if we find that 85 percent of the general population achieves the universal goal in relation to some problem, we might find that only 75 percent of men, or just 70 percent of rural men, or even just 65 percent of rural, white men achieve the universal goal. Such information is important to assessing the nature of the problem and developing strategies to move rural men, in this example, toward the universal goal. 

Defining constituent groups within the general population should be fact driven rather than based upon preconceived notions of group identity. When examining student performance, for example, we might need to examine different possible groupings of students or combinations of traits or characteristics to identify performance gaps that require further investigation.

Just as the universal goal must always be framed in terms of everyone, with no group favored, so too must the disparity data focus on the relationship to the goal or overall population, and not in relation to a dominant group. The purpose of this step is not to examine or identify disparities between one subgroup and another. Rather, the purpose is to identify distance from the universal goal. 

Evaluating subgroup performance relative to the overall population might seem like a focus on disparities from a marginalized group relative to the dominant group, but it is not the same thing. An example can illustrate this subtle distinction. Suppose that a general performance evaluation conducted under Step 2 reveals that 73 percent of the overall population achieves the universal goal, whatever that might be. But suppose that the dominant group (however you might define that) within that population achieves the universal goal at a rate of 81 percent, and that a particularly marginalized group achieves the universal goal at a rate of 67 percent. 

A disparity focus would emphasize the difference between the performance of the dominant group and the performance of the marginalized group, or the difference between 67 percent and 81 percent. However, the difference between the marginalized group and the general population performance was 67 percent to 73 percent. While a targeted universalism platform is concerned primarily with moving all groups to the universal goal, and therefore achieving a 100 percent achievement rate, it is secondarily focused on the general population and subgroups, not between the performance of marginalized group and dominant groups. 

In fact, a targeted universalism framework deliberately shifts focus away from the performance of dominant groups. By focusing on how well dominant groups perform in relation to universal goals, we set the bar too low and slip back into targeted strategies. Only by focusing on the universal goal can we overcome this problem and the attendant deficiencies of targeted strategies. 

Why, then, conduct a general performance measure at all? The distance of subgroups from the general population measure serves as a diagnostic indicator and baseline measure that direct attention to conditions and structures that will be assessed in the next step. Many disparities are an effect of interlocking institutions, systems, markets, geographies, and structures. Performance disparities between groups relative to the universal goal are not always results of barriers to the universal goal. Often, the disparity in performance is not the result of an affirmative barrier so much as it is a dysfunction in the system. Only by understanding the general performance measure can we begin to understand the extent to which systems and structures are impeding or failing to serve subgroup populations. 

In addition to different groups of people who experience different barriers to reaching the goal, many places or geographic locations must be assessed. Thus, in addition to examining the performance of various groups, we must also look at how certain places or communities fare relative to the universal goal. Residents from certain neighborhoods may be visibly disadvantaged in terms of employment, health outcomes, educational performance, or skills development. As noted above, the opioid crisis has particularly devastated rural communities. Without assessing performance or incidence of a problem geographically, it may be more difficult to identify or pinpoint underlying causes. 

Furthermore, population subgroups may be spatially sorted. Thus, we need to assess how subgroups perform, not just as a block, but based upon their differential geographies. For example, Black children growing up in an affluent suburb may have different needs or confront different challenges than Black children growing up in a low-income urban neighborhood or inner-ring suburb that has suffered decades of disinvestment and poverty. To over generalize, children in the former may be more likely to suffer from microaggressions, exposure to racial epithets, or doubts of self-confidence, while children in the latter may simply lack resources, high-quality educational services, and have greater risk of physical violence. Particular places may also be identified as a constituent group by themselves. Geography matters.

Diverse forms of data should inform this assessment—for example, qualitative data that could include data from focus groups, surveys, and previous planning documents. Likert scale surveys could also be used to supplement qualitative feedback and aggregate quantitative data. This knowledge can also inform an assessment of the distance between a group and the goal. These may not be exact quantitative measures but may suggest further areas for inquiry or may constitute an assessment themselves.

STEP 4 Assess and understand the structures that support or impede each group or community from achieving the universal goal

This step is perhaps the most critical step within a targeted universal framework. 

It is not sufficient to recognize varying performance outcomes among groups with respect to the universal goal. We must understand the structures that shape these outcomes for each group. This involves a deep investigation of the problem and the circumstances that confront each group or impede achievement of the universal goal. This step examines the systems and structures to see how they are performing in relationship to each group. 

The analysis of the problem conducted at this step directly shapes and informs the strategies that will emerge in the final step. The previous two steps are primarily, but not exclusively, measurements. This step is more analytical and seeks to understand the nature of the problem at root.

To illustrate this step, however, consider the problem of accessing health care services. For many people, the cost of health care may be the main impediment to accessing health care services. But for people with disabilities, the hours, location, and easements may be additional barriers. For refugees or immigrants, there may also be a language barrier.

While the search for impediments is a critical part of this examination of structures, it should not be restricted to the identification of barriers. In some cases, it is a lack of supports, and not simply barriers, that forms the impediment. For example, lack of car ownership may impede progress toward the goal as much as a road block. Our assessment must extend beyond the search for barriers, and examine how structures are performing in relationship to how groups are situated within them. Our assessment must be driven by a proactive interest in monitoring and evaluating performance to achieve the universal goal, not simply trying to remove barriers or make a universal policy or system more neutral.

The assessment process must entail a mixed-methods analysis. It must encompass quantitative demographic analysis as well as qualitative sources. Drawing knowledge from a number of different sources and people is critical to this step. In that regard, it is essential that there is diverse representation throughout this process— affected groups, community organizing experts, policy groups, and decisionmakers—to make sure that the assessment is deeply informed by a broad base of knowledge.

In this phase of the process there is the opportunity that should not be missed—the opportunity to be influenced by a diverse set of experience, expertise, and knowledge. This requires that information generated during one phase of the process may inform or change the outcomes from another. These insights are important, and the process should be structured so that insights from one phase of the process can inform another. The process will be nonlinear, and insights will be gathered sporadically, so it is important to make sure this information is structured in a way that it is all gathered thoughtfully and systematically.

Drawing upon the insights of people themselves can be revealing. For example, if the goal is for residents of a jurisdiction to live in safe neighborhoods, for some groups a barrier may be the fear of police violence or lack of trust in police officers rather than just fear of criminal violence or property crimes, as might be the case for other groups. In our experience residents who do not feel safe in their neighborhoods conceptualize safety in the capacity for them to feel they belong in the local public park. In one community, when residents of color gathered in a park, white residents in or near the park expressed discomfort and police frequently appeared. This was described as a clear communication that residents of color did not “belong” in the park, that public space was not safe for them.

The analysis of the problem at this stage should shape and inform the strategies that are designed in the final phase. The first two steps involve quantitative data measurements. However, patterns in those measurements are often what inspire us to address a particular unfair disadvantage or an unfair gap. Targeted universalism asks that we not assume that the problem to address—the problem that a strategy will address—is a gap between groups. Rather, it asks that we think about problems as the gap between groups and the universal goal. 

STEP 5 Develop and implement targeted strategies for each group to reach the universal goal 

Throughout this report, we have been using the terms “general population,” “subgroups,” “targeted groups,” and “universal goals” to draw crucial distinctions. Targeted strategies are associated with a particular group in mind, and they are generally designed to target that group or groups. The targeted universalism agenda is the ensemble of targeted strategies across all groups. Therefore, this step calls for the development and implementation of a range or set of strategies to advance all groups toward the universal goal. 

To move all groups toward the universal goal, the cliché “one size fits all” does not apply, and, in fact, is the chief impediment. While a strategy may be frequently raised in association with a problem, a targeted universalism platform resists the reduction of implementation strategies to a single approach. A targeted universalism policy requires a multiplicity of implementation strategies to advance all groups to the universal goal. Implementation strategies will vary in form and content, as well as the kinds of resources that are required, as will be described in greater detail in the next parts. 

While the universal goal may be one to which most or all groups aspire, some groups have more acute needs and more extreme circumstances. In cases where their resources are limited to fund or otherwise support particular interventions, it may not make sense to evenly distribute those resources simply because the universal goal has not been reached by every group. Groups further off from obtaining stable housing—and groups in extreme distress—should be the recipients of greater support. Clarifying that the goal is universal in aspiration does not require artificially restrictive supports by way of maintaining a formally equal resource distribution.

Recall the assessment of barriers and supports conducted for the problem of health care services described in the previous section. This analysis can produce quite a number of targeted strategies— changing the location and hours of service delivery, providing public finance to finance health care services, and/or providing translators and system navigators. We may think or even discuss these ideas before we know to “look” for the measure of distance. The collective experience and knowledge at the table may point to these issues. After this, we may need to turn to look for data that could confirm or modify these issues.

It is in this phase of the targeted universalism platform that the importance of local knowledge and qualitative insights becomes fully manifest. Identifying how different groups are situated or performing relative to the goal can be and is usually assessed by data. However, it’s important for the process to also be influenced by the experiences and tacit knowledge of people who are at a distance from the goal. While the “distance” step may seem more analytical, the importance of having broad participation in earlier phases will ensure the targeted strategies are able to provide immediate and longterm relief.

Because so many people and groups of people are often left out of spheres of authority and decision making where policy is created, there must be a deliberate and institutional process to articulate what the universal goal is and for prioritizing the targeted strategies that may be derived. This is not to say that people who are traditionally represented in positions of authority and those vested with decision-making power should be excluded—it is to say that particular groups are already well represented in those positions. 

In order to benefit from the knowledge of people traditionally excluded we have to make a great and intentional effort to involve people from those groups. This may mean that decision makers will have to fundamentally change their deliberative process. This is also to say that this participation must exceed the traditional notions of “community participation” or “engagement.” People need to be included need to share power and exert influence by their participation. Their insights and knowledge should meaningfully shift the course of action and conversation. 

Implementation strategies derived in this step of the targeted universalism framework are not only outcome oriented, but they must be evaluated for success. A single dose intervention—even administered through a panoply of implementation strategies—is unlikely to advance all groups toward the universal goal. Rather, what is needed is a sustainable process that evaluates progress toward the universal goal, and recalibrates or recommends amendments to the implementation strategies over time. 

  • 41. For a useful example, consider conservative columnist David French’s rejoinder to a monologue from Tucker Carlson, in which French expressed skepticism about the role of government in solving a cluster of social problems: “It is a simple fact, that when people make bad choices, there are a cascade of negative effects that follow. The extraordinarily difficult challenge of public policy is considering how to mitigate the effects of those mistakes and providing pathways to overcoming bad decisions. And nothing about that is easy.” https://www.nationalreview. com/2019/01/the-right-should-reject-tucker-carlsons-victimhood-populism/
  • iv. There need not be complete consensus that a problem exists for a targeted universalism platform to proceed, but there does need to be a broadly shared recognition
  • 42. “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” 123 Stat. 115 § 3 (2009), https:// www.ntia.doc.gov/page/2011/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act-2009.
  • 43. “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” 123 Stat. 115 § 5001 (2009), https://www.ntia.doc.gov/page/2011/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-ac....
  • 44. Katherine M. Keyes et al., “Understanding the Rural–Urban Differences in Nonmedical Prescription Opioid Use and Abuse in the United States,” American Journal of Public Health 104, no. 2 (December 12, 2013): e52–59, https://doi.org/10.2105/ AJPH.2013.301709