Equality Is Not Equity

Michael Metzger

One of President Biden’s first executive orders confuses a bedrock (and biblical) assumption of our nation’s Founders. But how many noticed?

On his first day as president, Joe Biden issued an “Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities.” It essentially gives government agencies the right to take whatever measures it deems necessary to achieve equal outcomes.

But this confuses equality with equity. Kamala Harris noted this before the election: “There’s a big difference between equality and equity.” She’s right, but do you know why?

Equality is recognized in the Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Equality recognizes equal origins.

Equity is about equal outcomes. That’s very different. It’s not even biblical. Everyone is made in God’s image (equal origins), but Jesus said we don’t receive equal abilities. With different levels of abilities, different levels of outcomes are expected (Mt.25:14-30). Based on what we make of what we’re given, God then distributes different levels of rewards (Luke 19).

And therein lies the rub. Made in God’s image, we’re response-able—responsible for outcomes. We see this in the Parable of the Talents. The man who receives one talent acts irresponsibly. He doesn’t invest it. He buries it under his mattress, earning nothing. Zero outcome. Called to give an account, he blames the master, blames the system, plays the victim. The master is unsparing in his criticism. The one-talent man is lazy, wicked.

Hardly hear that anymore. In a therapeutic society, it sounds judgmental. Yet we see it in scripture, where we read this tension: “Those unwilling to work don’t eat” (II Thess.3:10), yet we “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Prov.31:8-9).

This tension defines shalom, which is sought by means of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity means those closest to the action (locals) are best equipped to solve their problems. They simply need a bit of help (the word subsidium means help). Not massive entitlement programs.

This is enshrined in our laws. Equality means equal treatment, unbiased competition and impartially judged outcomes. Equal treatment should begin early, such as with adequate funding for K-12 students. There should be some form of social safety net for the poor and disadvantaged. No worker should be laid off because of his race, gender or religion.

What we are seeing now is different. It’s equity, the claim that the unfair treatment of previous generations entitles me to special consideration today as an adult. Most Americans are willing to extend some help to those at the margins, but generally for limited periods of time. They don’t want these benefits to become permanent entitlement programs.

Which is what Daniel Patrick Moynihan feared would happen to African-American families. Moynihan was a Democrat, Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Johnson Administration. In 1965, he issued a report stating civil-rights laws alone would not produce racial equality. But he warned that these laws will heighten expectations “in the near future…” that “equal opportunities will produce roughly equal results. This is not going to happen. Nor will it happen for generations to come unless a new and special effort is made.”

The new effort had to focus on the African-American family, which Moynihan described as “crumbling” due to out-of-wedlock births. This caused a firestorm in the black community as Moynihan was white. How dare a white man suggest solutions for blacks?

Yet look at the out-of-wedlock birthrate among blacks since 1965. Then, it was 25 percent. Today it’s 70 percent. The vast and expensive expansion of the entitlement state that Moynihan warned against has fostered a victim society. Blame the racist system.

I close with some inconvenient truths. This past year, I’ve volunteered at a pop-up pantry that mainly serves the Hispanic community. One frigid morning as we were unloading the tractor-trailer, I met a new volunteer, a young Hispanic. Someone asked, Why are you volunteering? Listen to his reponse: “I began over there, in the receiving line, when I realized I could give as well.”

Response-able. I teared up.

I’ve also gotten to know a new clergyman in town. After surveying the prodigious efforts of the faith community over the last 60 years in a crumbling part of our town, he remarked, “The charity model is broken.” We create entitled victims. We generally don’t ask whether these folks, made in God’s image, are acting as morally response-able human beings.

Like the Moynihan report, you can write this off as another instance of a white guy moralizing. But my hope is that we stop confusing equality with equity. Kamala Harris is right. There’s a big difference between equality and equity. I’m just not sure anyone knows why anymore.



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