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QUESTION: In simple terms, what is Targeted Universalism?

ANSWER: Targeted Universalism is the pursuit of universal goals with targeted or tailored measures, programs or interventions. 

It is different from universal strategies and policies because with universal strategies both the goals and implementation processes are universal, treating everyone the same. In a Targeted Universalism framework, only the goals are universal, but the implementation processes are targeted. It is different from targeted policies in that targeted policies start with targeted goals. Targeted Universalism seeks to raise all groups to a common aspiration point, even though it may take different paths or efforts to achieve that goal. 

The “Categorizing Strategies” section of our primer describes these differences in more detail with plenty of examples of each.

QUESTION: Can I aim to reduce a disparity for the universal goal?

ANSWER: Not directly, no.

In the primer, we explain that the first step of the development of a Targeted Universalism process is “establishing a universal goal.”  The universal goal should be framed without specific reference to reducing disparities or the performance of a particular group. Therefore, it should not be aimed at reducing a particular disparity.

This does not mean that you should ignore how different groups are performing in thinking about where to set the universal goal, it just means that the goal itself should not be framed in reference to specific groups. Consider, as an example, a community college seeking to boost it’s graduation rate.

Suppose a community college discovers that it has a 49 percent graduation rate, but that the rate is only 39 percent for students who are parents and 35 percent for students with disabilities. The community college may set as a universal goal the target of getting 60 percent of students to graduation. This may require intensive targeted supports for students who are parents and students with disabilities. Thus, the universal goal does not specify the reduction of a particular disparity or make reference to how some student populations are performing relative to other ones, but provides a realistic target which will demand intensive efforts to achieve it.

In short, the universal goal should not reference specific groups or aim to reduce disparities. Nor is the Targeted Universalism process a license to engage in targeting in policy, programs or platforms in goal-setting. All targeted efforts should be designed in reference to the universal goal.

QUESTION: How can I focus on a specific group in setting or calibrating the universal goal?

ANSWER: The answer to the question immediately above suggests the answer: doing this is antithetical to the targeted universalism process. Steps 3, 4 and 5 relate to specific groups, but the framing of the universal goal and the general performance measure are conducted without reference to specific groups. 

If you are trying to set a goal that focuses or targets a specific group with the intention of improving the performance of that group, then you are trying to design a targeted intervention, not a targeted universalistic intervention. This is described more below, in answer to the question about the difference between targeted policies and targeted universal policies. 

On the other hand, if your intention is to set as the universal goal the performance of a better- or best-performing group, then this is also inconsistent with a targeted universalism policy development process. Targeted Universalism is an approach to policy development and communication designed to improve outcomes for marginalized communities and members of marginalized social groups in a more sustainable and durable way by including all groups in the policy frame. This is thoroughly discussed in the first major section of the primer, “Categorizing Strategies.” And, as noted above, the process has a strong tendency to reduce disparities by moving all groups toward a universal goal. 

A critical difference, however, between traditional equity strategies and targeted universalistic strategies is that the universal goal is set based upon a universal aspiration or need rather than setting the goal at the performance of a dominant or better-off social group. This is by design and an intentional part of the targeted universalism policy development process. In many cases, dominant or non-marginalized groups are experiencing declining fortunes, such as the well-noted decline in white life expectancy. Setting the goal or benchmark relative to the performance of a group struggling or declining is inconsistent with the idea of lifting up all people.

QUESTION: How do we set the universal goal?

ANSWER: There is no single formula for establishing the universal goal, and doing so may be one of the more difficult and foundational steps in the Targeted Universalism process.

In the primer (pages 21-22), we discuss the process of establishing this goal as one of reflecting ‘collective aspirations” and based upon a “broadly shared recognition of a problem.” In other words, the goal should be reflective of aspirations of the community or institution and a general consensus that this is a problem area requiring concerted effort. This does not mean that there must be unanimity, but there should be a sense of broad agreement that a problem exists and is worthy of a response.

Defining the goal in terms of collective aspirations will require the input of many stakeholders, and can be a time-intensive process if done well. It is partly a visioning process as well as an effort to get members of the institution or community to articulate a shared vision, much like vision and mission statements do for institutions.

We are aware of an effort to apply Targeted Universalism to Pre-K in California, and the organizations leading that effort spent nearly a month developing and then wordsmithing the universal goal. That level of effort and focus may be required to frame a goal that can guide a Targeted Universalism process.

QUESTION: Should the universal goal be realistic or aspirational?

ANSWER: As noted in the primer, the universal goal should reflect a collective aspiration and address the problem at issue. That means it must be aspirational and require significant effort to achieve. At the same time, it has to be within the realm of possibility.

The final step of the Targeted Universalism process is to design and implement targeted strategies to bring different groups up to the universal goal. If the universal goal is set so high that to reach it would be impossible for most or all groups, then those strategies are, narrowly defined, failures. Worse, it will engender cynicism among participants in the TU effort. On the other hand, the universal goal cannot be so anemic or weak that it requires little effort to achieve.

One way to manage this tension is to set the universal goal in increments over time. So, for example, you might say that you want to get all groups to 50 percent within 5 years and 80 percent within 10 years. An example of this is the federal inter-agency task force (see our TU in the news section) to reduce homelessness). They have set a goal to reduce homelessness by 25 percent by 2025 within a Targeted Universalism framework.

QUESTION: Do you have examples of the application of Targeted Universalism in practice?

ANSWER: To the best of our knowledge, there is no perfect example of the deliberate application of Targeted Universalism, but there are many examples of efforts that either embody it or have attempted to follow the framework described in our primer.

One example of a set of efforts that embody many of the principles and core idea of Targeted Universalism are the myriad of state-level “adequacy” lawsuits that challenged inequities in school funding formulas under respective state laws. Such suits occurred in over 25 states from the early 1970s to the early years of this century, and resulted in substantial funding increases for underperforming school districts. These suits established a universal goal - the goal of every child getting an adequate education – and the provided additional resources needed to reach that goal, with levels often varying depending upon the need and local circumstances.

There are several examples (of which we are aware) of entities self-consciously adopting the Targeted Universalism framework. We covered one such effort undertaken by King County in Washington State in our case study write-up. In that case, the county made revision to its strategic plan in 2015, which led to the creation of a new Office of Equity and Social Justice (OESJ). This office led a visioning process that established an overall universal goal as wel as a set of universal goals for each issue area. It then created a set of pathways in pursuit of those goals. They ‘built the table’ of stakeholders, collected data and analyzed it to assess disparities and track progress.

In California, the state legislature appointed a commission to examine early childhood education. This commission explored, and ultimately recommended, a Targeted Universalism approach to expanding access to high quality pre-Kindergarten opportunities. Relatedly, a coalition of California advocacy organizations has embraced Targeted Universalism under the auspices of the “Whole Child Equity Partnership.” As part of that process, they have expended considerable effort and energies into following the steps of the process.

We are aware of another effort being undertaken in Chicago connected with the school district that is also self-consciously following the Targeted Universalism process. This effort is posing the critical questions and creating a set of processes that will reduce critical disparities within the district. It is too early to report the results of this effort, but we will be looking for progress.

QUESTION: What's the difference between Targeted approaches and Targeted Universalism?

ANSWER: The first major part of the primer (pages 7-19) describes the differences between three policy approaches: universal approaches, targeted approaches, and targeted universalistic approaches.

In brief, however, targeted approaches are policy modes that target a particular group both in design and implementation. In other words, they are designed with the goal of helping that particular group, and implemented in a way that only extends its benefits or protections to that group, and not members of another group. For example, a reparations policy (as described in our Structural Racism Remedies introductory essay) or an affirmative action policy are both policies that are specific to a group: the protections and benefits are extended only to that group, and not to members of other groups.

A targeted universalism policy, in contrast, sets as a goal a universal benchmark, but can employ targeted processes to reach that goal. It is not targeted in the same sense as a reparations policy or an affirmative action policy. See the hypothetical of the community college (in answer to another question above) for illustrative contrast. In that example, the community college set as a target the goal of a 60 percent graduation rate for all groups, not just for the two most disparately performing groups, student-parents or students with disabilities.

QUESTION: Is Targeted Universalism a framework that justifies or legitimizes targeted policy design or a remedial scheme?

ANSWER: No. This is a common misunderstanding. As we explained above, Targeted Universalism is not a license to engage in targeted policymaking or to reduce disparities. Rather, it is a framework that yields targeted policy prescriptions to help groups reach a universal goal. 

All targeting within a Targeted Universalism policy framework is in service of achieving the universal goal. This means that Targeted Universalism is not a remedial scheme. It is not a policy approach that should be employed if the goal is to address some clearly identified past harm to a specific group. Remedial schemes are more narrowly focused on a group that has experienced specified harms, and seeks to redress those harms. Targeted Universalism takes cognizance of all groups and seeks to bring them to the universal goal as its own policy objective, not in relation to past harm.

QUESTION: If a policy like minimum wage helps people of color more than white people, does that make it an example of Targeted Universalism?

ANSWER: This question differentiates between policy design and policy impact.

We discuss minimum wage policies in the primer. As we explain there, minimum wage policies are variants of universal policies: they are policies that extend their benefits universally or nearly so. They do not condition the benefit or protection on group status or identity.

If a universal policy has a ‘disparate’ impact, say helping raise the wages of marginalized workers more than non-marginalized workers, that may be a merit in its favor, but that does not render it a targeted universalist policy. In our primer, we discuss how universal health care policies have often been designed with an expectation that they would help marginalized groups more. Similarly, this does not make them targeted universalist in design.

A targeted universalist strategy rejects a one-size fits all approach. After setting the universal goal and conducting the general performance measure (step 2) and the disaggregation and analysis (steps 3 and 4), multiple different implementation strategies must be developed and pursued to ensure that each group reaches the universal goal. Universal approaches which treat everyone the same cannot do this, and therefore are not examples of Targeted Universalism, even if they have a disparate (positive) impact.

QUESTION: How does this relate to equity? Doesn't Targeted Universalism water down or de-emphasize racial equity?

ANSWER: This is a complicated question to answer, and this issue is discussed in our primer.

In short, equity is primarily concerned with reducing disparities. Targeted Universalism also seeks to reduce disparities, but does so through a different route. Instead of setting the reduction of disparities as the goal, targeted universalism establishes a universal goal, and then seeks the development of multiple implementation processes to achieve that goal. The end result is a reduction in disparities, but always in reference to a universal goal. The reason for this difference is based, in part, upon the research described in the primer on the sustainability and durability of targeted policy approaches versus those that are more universalistic. The political science and legal research is unequivocal that targeted policies are less politically popular, less durable, harder to sustain over time, and more likely to be interpreted narrowly by courts, or even struck down. Universal policies have many advantages and disadvantages as well.

Targeted Universalism is an approach that takes the best of both approaches, while being a more sustainable path to equity outcomes. It avoids the problems of being perceived as zero-sum, or running into zero-sum political debates while ultimately achieving the same goal. This approach does not dilute a focus on race or racial equity. After all, steps 3, 4 and 5 in the Targeted Universalism development process require disaggregation of groups, analysis of the disparity, and the development of targeted strategies to help each group. Thus, it actually provides a stronger and firmer foundation for the achievement of racial equity.

QUESTION: What if some groups outperform the universal goal? What if it doesn’t seem possible, realistic or useful to set a goal above the performance of better-performing groups? 

ANSWER: We noted above that the universal goal should not be set with reference to specific groups, either better-performing groups or marginalized groups. We explained the reasons for this, including the fact that in many cases better-performing groups have declining performance or that the collective aspiration embodied in the universal goal should be set above the performance of the currently-best-performing group. There may be practical difficulties, however, that can arise when some groups perform extraordinarily well on some measure of well-being or outperform the universal goal.

If one or more group outperforms the universal goal, then a targeted universalism process may not be capable of eliminating certain disparities between groups. That does not mean, however, that it can’t facilitate a substantial reduction in disparities between groups. If, for example, the universal goal is that all racial groups enjoy a homeownership rate of 60 percent, but some groups already own homes at a rate that far exceeds that goal, then moving all groups to that goal would reduce, but not eliminate racial disparities in homeownership.

This does not mean that the goal should be raised above the performance of all groups. Universal goals should be realistic, not calibrated based upon the performance of better-off groups. Upon further analysis, for instance, you may discover that some subgroups within or among the better-performing groups lag behind the universal goal. So, for example, homeownership rates vary not just by race, but also by generation (age), educational attainment and family wealth. Thus, a targeted universalism process could also assist members of those sub-groups in reaching the universal goal. 

In most cases (e.g. poverty rates, test scores, unemployment rates, educational attainment, etc.), it should be fairly straightforward to establish the universal goal relative to a scale and measure the performance of the population and particular groups against that goal. In a few corner cases, however, where there is no scale or the performance is unbounded (such as with the accumulation of wealth), it can be much more difficult to decide as a community or society if there should be a universal goal, and if so, where to set it. In such cases, it may not be easy to establish a clear target for the universal goal reflecting a collective aspiration or the needs or requirements of people in society. This does not mean it is impossible, however. Considerable effort is required in crafting a universal goal. And even if it is set below the performance of some groups, it can still help reduce inter-group disparities.

QUESTION: What do you mean by "situatedness" and focusing on structures and institutions rather than people and groups?

ANSWER: The fourth step in the Targeted Universalism development process calls for an analysis of the reasons for the disparities in outcomes observed in steps 2 and 3. In the primer, we emphasize examining structures and institutions that contribute to these disparities, rather than trying to locate the cause in the people or groups themselves.

By that we mean that explanations should be sought in conditions, environment, resources, and policy rather than in the behaviors or culture of social groups. This is not to say that all outcomes are entirely structural, but much of it is, and far more than is often acknowledged or recognized. For example, in assessing health disparities, you may wish to examine whether certain neighborhoods have a high presence of PM 2.5’s (airborne particulates) which cause asthma, or whether there are safe parks and playgrounds for exercise, or affordable fresh produce and fresh foods rather than processed foods. These are the kinds of environmental or situational conditions that should be examined.

This is also what is meant by “situatedness.” This refers to how individuals or members of groups are positioned in society relative to life enhancing resources. See the primer for more details.

QUESTION: What do you mean focus on outcomes? How do you ensure Targeted Universalism is used for the social good?

ANSWER: By a focus on outcomes, we mean results - the performance of populations (as measured in step 3 and 4) relative to the universal goal. Targeted Universalism is an outcome- rather than process-oriented policy development effort. Process efforts focus on things like training and intentionality, whereas Targeted Universalism is focused on outcomes.The Targeted Universalism process cannot ensure that it produces a social good. That entirely depends upon the universal goal. But if the universal goal is set in a way that would improve conditions and well-being in society, then a Targeted Universalism process is, if followed, likely to help.

QUESTION: Is Targeted Universalism a Communications strategy? If so, how?

ANSWER: Targeted Universalism is a process by which to develop better policy outcomes, especially for marginalized groups. Part of that process is communicative: it maintains and signals to all members of the community that their well-being and performance matters, even if they are not members of marginalized groups. This is why there is an insistent focus on creating and pursuing a universal goal: it avoids the pitfalls of zero-sum politics, as noted above.

But this does not make Targeted Universalism primarily a communication strategy. It takes seriously the need to do careful analysis and create multiple policy pathways to reaching the universal goal. If Targeted Universalism were merely communicative, then equity interventions which use a one-size-fits-all implementation strategy could be rebranded as Targeted Universalism. Targeted Universalism requires more, both in terms of policy design and implementation, but also in terms of setting the universal goal.

QUESTION: How does Targeted Universalism relate to Belonging?

ANSWER: Targeted Universalism is a policy development process that also nicely serves to promote and expand belonging. Belonging goes beyond typical equity interventions, in having a subjective component, not merely an objective focus on outcomes and data. Part of this subjectivity is based upon the actual experience and feelings of participants in a process, place or institution. Part of this subjectivity is generated by active participation, a sense of co-creation.

The effort to create a universal goal requires broad involvement and deliberation among all sectors of a community. This should be participatory, or what we call in the primer, “building the table.” (Page 39) Another participatory element of the Targeted Universalism development process is the assessment of why certain groups are performing more distantly from the universal goal. Understanding why a group is under-performing in a certain institution will require the input of all participants in that institution. As we explain in the primer, in the educational context this includes teachers, administrators, counselors, scholars and researchers, but also parents, students, peers, and community members.

This participatory aspect to Targeted Universalism is well designed to foster a sense of belonging. And implementation policies derived from this process further weave a sense of belonging by meeting group needs while reminding everyone that they are part of the same social fabric. Traditional equity interventions are not quite as successful in fostering belonging, especially between groups, in this regard.