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Social equity is concept that can be difficult to grasp, not only because it means different things to different people, but also because people frequently confuse the concept of equity with the concept of equality. While equality is an understandable social goal, it is important to realize that equality tends to be relative. For example, giving someone equal legal rights to a person from a different social, cultural, or financial background may result in very different results, so that facial equality may actually reinforce the basic inequities that drive discrimination. That is why the concept of social equity goes beyond equality and "implies fair access to livelihood, education, and resources; full participation in the political and cultural life of the community; and self-determination in meeting fundamental needs" (Ecotrust, 2014). To achieve those goals, it is clear that social equity necessarily has two faces: civil rights and economic rights.
To understand the importance of either of those two necessary components to social equity, one need only examine a scenario in which traditionally disadvantaged people only have access to one aspect of social equity. To do so, one need only envision the United States in the early 1960s. At that time, African-Americans faced serious and significant civil rights hurdles which were coupled with tremendous relative financial disadvantage. The solution that the country determined was appropriate was to put an end to legalized discrimination. Race could no longer play a factor in the decision-making that would impact the level of participation that African-Americans could have in society as a whole. This had an immediate impact on seemingly minor daily behaviors, such as the end of legalized segregation in public accommodations. It also opened up opportunities for many African-Americans, by making them eligible for housing in better neighborhoods, to attend better schools, and to get higher-paying jobs.
However, it has been more than 50 years since the passage of the landmark civil rights legislation that was meant to bring about equality in the United States, but tremendous racial disparities continue to exist. These civil rights changes were not accompanied by a simultaneous change in economic rights. African-Americans still held only a small portion of the nation's wealth, and that small amount was very disproportionate to their representation in the population. The practical result of this was that African-Americans may have had equal civil-rights, but often lacked the financial means to access those rights. For example, they may have had the legal ability to buy homes in better neighborhoods with better school districts, but not the financial means to buy those homes. Their children may have been eligible for educations at expensive colleges and universities and may even have attended those universities, but the lack of family funds to pay for those educations may have meant a crippling debt burden that prevented even highly educated students from ascending above the middle class. Access to desegregated schools may have been meaningless for a generation of students whose parents had not had the same educational opportunities, but who also could not have afforded the tutors and other advantages that middle class families could provide. The impact of financial disparity is probably most apparent in the criminal justice system; while most estimates suggest that blacks and whites commit crimes at approximately the same rates, blacks are far more likely to be indigent and require public defenders than whites, and blacks are far more likely to be convicted and face harsher sentences than whites, an impact that many attribute to their inability to afford high-priced legal counsel. The modern United States, which still has de facto segregation in many places, despite five centuries of laws guaranteeing civil rights, is a good example of why economic rights must be a component of social equity.
However, it is just as easy to imagine a world in which a minority may have had economic rights, but not the civil rights to give them any power. In fact, the historical United States has an example of that scenario as well. Although women have never achieved economic equity with men in the United States, when one examines historical community property laws and other economic laws, it becomes clear that some women did enjoy substantial access to financial resources, which translated into power for them, at least at a localized level. However, women still do not enjoy the same constitutional civil rights protections that minorities are guaranteed. Women have had the legal right to vote in the United States for less than a century. Domestic violence has only been a crime for about thirty years, and less than ten years ago it was still a defense to rape charge in some states to show that the victim was married to the perpetrator. The practical impact of these legal hurdles is that, while married women may enjoy economic parity with married males in the same social class, the practical impact of laws and social norms means that the vast majority of unmarried women face financial difficulties when compared, not just to men, but also to married women. The result is that women lack social equity with men, even if the result is not seen as clearly because women are frequently in the same family units with men and society looks at wealth as family wealth.
The fact that both civil rights and economic rights are necessary for social equity is an important one and helps illuminate why the American welfare system, which does directly transfer wealth from some Americans to other Americans, has not provided a solution to the basic inequality that exists in the United States. First, it is important to examine the two different inequities that come into play when discussing financial inequality in the United States. First, one must examine socio-economic class and realize that members of the lower-class, and the lower-middle classes traditionally have less access to community resources than other members of the community. There are a variety of reasons for this lack of access, but a lack of transportation and a lack of leisure time both contribute to the general inability of the members of the lower classes to access social resources that are free for the use of members of the population. Furthermore, governmental resources that are nominally priced, such as driver's licenses, pet licenses, or marriage licenses may be easy for a member of the middle-class to access, but prohibitively expensive for people with few financial means. This lack of economic equity creates a social inequity. This social inequity takes on a racial component when one considers that African-Americans are disproportionately represented among the lower socio-economic classes, and that it has become increasingly difficult for members of the those classes to rise to the next socioeconomic class within the course of a lifetime.
The American welfare state was never designed to provide a remedy to underlying financial inequity, and, in fact, by offering subsistence-level assistance, is incapable of offering such a remedy. Prior to the Great Depression, states and charitable organizations handled the burden of providing financial assistance to those in need. This locally provided assistance was not intended to address racial inequities and did not, for example, challenge the frequently race-based system of sharecropping that kept many people as virtual slaves long after official emancipation. Instead, these federal financial public assistance programs were developed in response to the country's greatest economic crises, which left a tremendous number of people vulnerable to a crushing version of poverty that was previously not known. "State systems of public relief were simply unprepared to cope with the volume of requests for help from individuals and families without work or income. On top of that, the economic depression reduced state and local revenues. Conditions were so grave it became necessary for the federal government to step in and help with the costs of public relief" (Hansan, 2011). This public relief was never intended as a means of providing social equity; it was intended as a stop-gap measure to prevent people from starving to death and to attempt to reduce the number of people who were homeless.
However, at the same time, the Great Depression also helped change the demographics of American society and was accompanied by a transition from rural to urban concentrations of people, which meant that after the Great Depression society did not return to a largely agrarian-based economy. This created a larger class of people competing for jobs in urban areas. Combined with legalized systems of discrimination, this demographic shift helped create a sub-group of financially dependent people who needed welfare programs to survive, but did not, as a group, have the economic parity required to achieve social equity. While this impact cut across racial lines, it had a disproportionate impact on racial minorities, particularly those non-whites who were actively prohibited from seeking jobs that would pay wages above subsistence wages. In recent times, there has been a shift in how social welfare programs reinforce the current economic disparity; minimum wages have failed to rise with increases in costs…[continue]
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