Equity: Do We Agree on What We Are Talking About?

July 15, 2021, Department, by John L. Crompton, Ph.D.

2021 August Finance Equity Do We Agree on What We Are Talking About 410

For an enhanced digital experience, read this story in the ezine.

NRPA is unequivocal in its commitment to equity, establishing it as one of the organization’s three pillars and declaring, “We must put equity at the center of all we do.” Ironically, equity always has been at the center of what we do, because it is implicit in every decision recreation and park managers make — renovating one playground rather than another; organizing special events in one area of the community rather than another; assigning the best recreation managers to one center rather than another and so on.

It is axiomatic that all of these routine decisions result in “winners” and “losers,” because when resources are allocated to one group or area they cannot be directed elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is difficult for most community members to get excited about engaging in discussions about these routine decisions, even though their cumulative impact on a neighborhood can have a substantive impact on residents’ quality of life. Thus, despite its pervasiveness, equity often remains a hidden influence of government, because the impact of routine operational decisions on equity receive little explicit attention.

Disputes over “our fair share” are likely to increase as tax support for recreation and park departments continues to decline, populations increase, tax caps increase, demographics of urban areas change, physical facilities deteriorate and need renovation, more costs are shifted to users, and community groups mobilized by social media multiply.

It is rare to find a park and recreation agency that has explicitly articulated an equity policy to guide service delivery decisions. Three reasons may account for this inaction. First, the community may delegate responsibility for ensuring services are equitable to the judgement of park and recreation professionals, rationalizing that by virtue of their training, expertise, experience and intimate knowledge of the community, they are best equipped to determine “who ought to get what.” Second is a lack of consciousness by elected officials and managers who have not been alerted to the equity impact of their decisions of the pervasive influence in service delivery decisions. Third, because equity is a slippery construct that has a wide range of different interpretations, an explicit discussion of equity is likely to be highly controversial and divisive. Thus, it is unlikely to be welcomed by either elected officials or managers.

On occasion, equity is used as a synonym for equality. This may be appropriate in some cases, but it would be a misinterpretation in others. Equality refers to “sameness.” In contrast, equity refers to fairness. It addresses the question, “Who gets what?” or in normative terms, “Who ought to get what?” These questions undergird much political debate and move equity into the multifaceted realm of individuals’ value systems, which makes a common interpretation of the word both elusive and divisive.

Equity is a fertile area for controversy into which economists, philosophers, political scientists and lawyers have ventured. Each discipline brings a different perspective to it. The result is perhaps best expressed by Humpty Dumpty who could have had equity in mind when he explained to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Many who use “equity” assume everyone has the same intuitive definition of it. This is a fallacious assumption.

A consequence of this vagueness and the word’s multiplicity of meanings is that everyone can be enthusiastic about equity, but many are dissatisfied with the actions that ensue because it is not what they meant. It is a catch-all word that means so many things to so many people that it clarifies almost nothing.

In contemporary society, Senators Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders are prominent political leaders. Both passionately advocate that resource allocations and delivery of services should be “equitable.” Senator Cruz interprets this to mean that those who benefit from services should pay for them; a perspective which may be characterized as “market/benefit equity.” In contrast, Senator Sanders argues for “compensatory equity,” meaning that government should provide extra increments of resources and services to those who are economically disadvantaged and cannot afford to purchase basic services from the private sector.

The intent of establishing equity as a pillar of NRPA’s work is to encourage the field to shift it from being a random outcome of policy and service delivery decisions to an intentional commitment to an agreed principle of equity.

There are four widely used interpretations of equity:

  • Compensatory Equity, which seeks to ameliorate inequities by disproportionately investing resources in economically disadvantaged areas.
  • Equality, which strives to deliver equal amounts of recreation and park services to all groups and areas in the community.
  • Market/Benefit Equity, which is analogous to the market mechanism used to allocate goods and services in the private sector (i.e., those who receive a service should pay the cost of producing it).
  • Demand, in which resources are allocated where they generate the greatest good for the greatest number as indicated by participation levels, interest levels, and/or amount of advocacy.

In the next few months, this column will focus on how to establish and integrate a desired interpretation of equity into a park and recreation agency’s operations. Communities and segments within communities embrace different interpretations of equity. The challenge for park and recreation managers is to determine which are dominant in their community and to put that interpretation “at the center of all we do.”

John L. Crompton, Ph.D., is a University Distinguished Professor, Regents Professor and Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University and an elected Councilmember for the City of College Station.