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The world is beset by a range of overwhelming challenges and intransigent problems that demand a policy response. Although political leaders may agree on the need for action, there is often disagreement over what constitutes an appropriate and legitimate response.i For example, the waves of refugee and migrant crises and the issue of widening economic inequality are two recent examples of crises in which policymakers are deeply divided on the best path forward. The seemingly diminished capacity of government to address or forestall repeated waves of social crises across the globe is exacerbated by political polarization regarding what constitutes an appropriate or effective response.1

Many policy disagreements are framed by familiar debates about the role of government and the nature or extent of the problem, as well as pragmatic concerns about how to structure or formulate policy for sustainable impact. More than differences of ideology or disagreement over facts, however, underlie these divides. Political polarization is fueled by a growing feeling of unfairness and the perception that policy is a zero-sum game. If one group benefits, or benefits disproportionately, then other groups may feel left behind or overlooked. The insistence that government and other public institutions remain neutral is eroded by a sense that the government is taking sides or has taken the wrong side. 

In an era of political polarization and fiscal austerity, policy debates too readily become trapped in a binary of either universal responses or targeted solutions. Universal responses enjoy a degree of legitimacy in a diverse and pluralistic society, but they may also be viewed as unaffordable and overly ambitious, while also inadequate at helping those most in need. Therefore, the most marginalized people are often the most skeptical of ostensibly universal policies. Targeted policies may be more efficient and less costly, but by targeting a particular group, these approaches are often viewed as unfairly helping one group over another, seeding hostility and resentment.  

Even well-intended policy interventions may inadvertently exacerbate inequality, but the absence of viable methods and workable policy frameworks ensures the perpetuation of “in-groups” and “outgroups.” There is hunger for fresh approaches and policy methods that can break through our political gridlock, address the problems of our time, and create new avenues for thriving individuals and communities. Targeted universalism is an alternative to either universal or targeted strategies with the potential to bridge our most intransigent policy divides.

Targeted universalism means setting universal goals pursued by targeted processes to achieve those goals. Within a targeted universalism framework, universal goals are established for all groups concerned. The strategies developed to achieve those goals are targeted, based upon how different groups are situated within structures, culture, and across geographies to obtain the universal goal. Targeted universalism is goal oriented, and the processes are directed in service of the explicit, universal goal.

Targeted universalism is a platform to operationalize programs that move all groups toward the universal policy goal as well as a way of communicating and publicly marketing such programs in an inclusive, bridging manner. It is an approach that supports the needs of particular groups, even the politically powerful or those in the majority, while reminding everyone that we are all part of the same social and civic fabric. As such, targeted universalist policies are more resistant to the critique that government programs serve special interests, whoever that might be. 

We urgently need aligned and coherent strategies that create belonging and promote bridging. Targeted universalism provides an approach for orchestrating these efforts. Targeted universalistic interventions undermine active or passive forces of structural exclusion and marginalization, and promote tangible experiences of belonging. Outgroups are moved from societal neglect to the center of societal care at the same time that more powerful or favored groups’ needs are addressed. 

The implementation strategies derived from a targeted universalism framework come in many forms. Some may be simple technical fixes or modest changes to existing programs. Others may be more sweeping changes or deeper structural reforms. Although the targeted universalism framework supports a wide range of policy interventions, the process for deriving implementation strategies unlocks the potential for transformative change. Such changes cannot arise without unraveling the narrow range of preconceived implementation possibilities held by many policymakers and reconstructing aspirations for an equitable society in which everyone can thrive. By emphasizing the universal goal as a way of justifying a diversity of implementation strategies, transformative change possibilities can be envisioned, pursued, and aligned. 

This primer is offered in the spirit of sharpening and contributing to a large body of policy models. Targeted universalism is a platform that jettisons an overly formalistic, one-size-fits-all policy formula in favor of an approach that is more outcome-oriented. As such, targeted universalism opens up the possibilities for experimentalist, manifold pathway policy regimes. It is a framework that adds nuance that can complement and accommodate the best work within the domain of innovating policy change. This type of agenda requires deliberate strategizing, ground-truthing, and smart organizing. The growing community of powerful policy, advocacy, community-based organizations and others can meet the challenge. Indeed, they are already well on the way.

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  • i Policy interventions follow three sequential steps: First, recognition of a social, economic, political, or environmental problem. In some cases, there is a lack of consensus that a problem exists. For example, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, some political leaders deny that climate change is an environmental problem. Second, policymakers must decide that the problem requires and merits a policy response. Not every governmental entity has jurisdiction to address or respond to policy problems that arise within their jurisdiction. And, for prudential or ideological reasons, some political leaders may believe that the problem, such as it exists, does not merit governmental intervention. Third, policymakers must select an appropriate and effective policy response, and develop sufficient consensus to promulgate and implement it. Policy debates often involve disagreement at each step. Sometimes, however, policymakers debate the same issue at different steps, and thereby talk past each other. This report focuses on the third step, and assumes that there is consensus on the first and second steps, but disagreement at the third step. We acknowledge that this may not always be the case, and therefore the framework in this primer may not be able to help resolve every policy debate.
  • 1 Noam Scheiber, “2016 Hopefuls and Wealthy Are Aligned on Inequality,” The New York Times, March 29, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/30/business/candidates-and-wealthy-are-aligned-on-inequality.html.