Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference?

While the terms equity and equality may sound similar, the implementation of one versus the other can lead to dramatically different outcomes for marginalized people.

Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.  

In the illustration below, two individuals have unequal access to a system — in this case, the tree that provides fruit. With equal support from evenly distributed tools, their access to the fruit still remains unequal. The equitable solution, however, allocates the exact resources that each person needs to access the fruit, leading to positive outcomes for both individuals. 

While the tree appears to be a naturally occurring system, it’s critical to remember that social systems aren’t naturally inequitable — they’ve been intentionally designed to reward specific demographics for so long that the system’s outcomes may appear unintentional but are actually rooted discriminatory practices and beliefs. 

Inequality

Inequality

Equity

Equity

Equality

Equality

Justice

Justice

Equity is a solution for addressing imbalanced social systems. Justice can take equity one step further by fixing the systems in a way that leads to long-term, sustainable, equitable access for generations to come.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), equity is defined as “the absence of avoidable or remediable differences among groups of people, whether those groups are defined socially, economically, demographically or geographically.” Therefore, as the WHO notes, health inequities involve more than lack of equal access to needed resources to maintain or improve health outcomes. They also refer to difficulty when it comes to “inequalities that infringe on fairness and human rights norms.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refers to health equity as “when everyone has the opportunity to be as healthy as possible.” As such, equity is a process and equality is an outcome of that process. Or, as the Race Matters Institute describes, “The route to achieving equity will not be accomplished through treating everyone equally. It will be achieved by treating everyone equitably, or justly according to their circumstances.”

Understanding the difference between health equality and health equity is important to public health to ensure that resources are directed appropriately — as well as supporting the ongoing process of meeting people where they are. Inherent to this process is the promotion of diversity in teams and personnel, public health practice, research methods and other related factors. For these reasons, providing the same type and number of resources to all is not enough. In order to reduce the health disparities gap, the underlying issues and individual needs of underserved and vulnerable populations must be effectively addressed.