What Is Social Justice? Equality and Equity?

No. Social justice requires restructuring the systems perpetuating inequities.

Posted Sep 28, 2020

In my previous post "Is the U.S. Really a Land of Opportunity for Children?" we learned that people in the U.S. show fewer gains in social mobility than people in other countries.

Social mobility refers to opportunities to achieve greater economic changes from one generation to the next. Although children in the U.S. at one time were able to obtain greater years of education and to experience greater work opportunities than previous generations, this is unfortunately no longer the norm. 

These declines in social mobility result from many factors, including the inequitable funding of public schools in the U.S. (such as by local property taxes). Research data show that neighborhoods in which children grow up predict their college attendance and earnings, for better or worse (Chetty & Hendren, 2018).

I mentioned in my previous post that declines in social mobility are therefore a social justice issue. So fully and equitably funding public schools will lead to social justice, at least in terms of educational opportunities, right? 

Not so fast. Yes, the disproportionate investments of public schools in the U.S. is an unconscionable inequity that can be reversed with federal investment in education so that all public schools, no matter where, are funded fully and equitably.

Yet these are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions to achieve social justice. Why? Because social justice requires more than equity.

Let's back up for a minute though. What is social justice? And is equality the same thing as equity? 

Social justice is often defined as the ability of people to reach their full potential within the societies in which they reside (Russell, 2015; Turiel, Chung, & Carr, 2016). 

Inequality is often defined as an unequal distribution of opportunities, as in the unequal funding of public schools. See the Inequality panel in the illustration by Tony Ruth for another example.

Equality is often defined as an equal distribution of opportunities, such as everyone being provided with the same thing to ensure they achieve their best, as would be the case if our public schools in the U.S. were funded the same amount, regardless of the local tax base. 

Note how the child closer to the tree in the Equality panel of Tony Ruth's illustration still has an advantage even when both children are provided equal tools and assistance.

Equity is often referred to as an equitable distribution of opportunities, such as everyone being provided with what they need to ensure they do their best. This would be the case if our public schools in the U.S. were funded so that greater investments were made in working-class and impoverished neighbors (rather than greater investments being made in middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods, as is the case now) where children's parents have fewer resources.

Note how the child who was further from the tree in the Equity panel of Tony Ruth's illustration now has a tool (a different ladder) to rectify the inequality with the other child. This situation is remarkably better than the unfortunate reality of most public schools in the U.S.

Yet still, this Equity situation does not exhibit social justice.

Social justice requires that the systems which create and perpetuate inequities be restructured so that barriers to accessing tools and opportunities are eliminated. This would be the case if the U.S. reduced income inequality, via a universal basic income that most other advanced countries provide as part of their government's safety net, as well via the progressive taxation that is supported by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Such progressive taxation would cover the costs of (and provide much-needed jobs) for restructuring the systems that perpetuate inequities — as well as cover the costs of reopening schools safely.

Note how each child in the Justice panel of Tony Ruth's illustration now has equal access to both tools and to opportunities.

We can, and must, do more for our children, teens, and families in this country, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic in which school inequity has been magnified, as children from under-resourced homes experience greater food insecurity, reduced health care access, unreliable Internet connections, and less access to private tutoring. 

The ability of each of us to fulfill our potential contributes to better development for everyone. 

And this is not just a moral issue. In fact, research shows that the 2019 economy in the U.S. would have been significantly larger if it had closed achievement gaps in 2009 (Dorn, Hancock, Sarakatsannis, & Viruleg, 2020). 

References

Anthis, K. (2021). Child and Adolescent Development: A Social Justice Approach. San Diego, CA: Cognella. 

Bratberg, E., Davis, J., Mazumder, B., Nyborn, M., Schnitzlein, D. D., & Vaage, K. (2018). A comparison of intergenerational mobility curves in Germany, Norway, Sweden, and the U.S. The Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 119(1). doi: 101.https://doi.org/10.1111/sjoe.12197

Chetty, R., & Hendren, N. (2018). The impacts of neighborhoods on intergenerational mobility I: Childhood exposure effects. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 133(3), 1107–1162. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjy007

Dorn, E. Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J. & Viruleg, E. (2020). COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-student-learning-in-the-united-states-the-hurt-could-last-a-lifetime#

Russell, S. T. (2015). Human developmental science for social justice. Research in Human Development, 12(3–4), 274–279. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/15427609.2015.1068049

Turiel, E., Chung, E., & Carr, J. A. (2016). Struggles for equal rights and social justice as unrepresented and represented in psy- chological research. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 50, 1–29. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.acdb.2015.11.004