What is Targeted Universalism?
Across people and places, vast disparities continue to exist in our nation—from health outcomes to education, to economic opportunity, and wealth-building opportunities. In attempting to address these disparities, policies and programs can inadvertently exacerbate the problem. Inclusive and collaborative strategies are crucial to developing policies that create transformative change. Targeted Universalism—introduced by Berkeley professor john a. powell of the Othering and Belonging Institute—is a powerful framework to organize efforts to increase equitable well-being by using targeted strategies to achieve universal goals.
Targeted Universalism sets universal goals for the general population that are accomplished through targeted approaches based on the needs of different groups. It offers a nuanced approach to achieving equitable outcomes for all with the goal of removing structural barriers. Importantly, Targeted Universalism differs from targeted and universal policies traditionally used to address needs and inequities.
How does Targeted Universalism differ from other equity-advancing approaches?
Targeted policies and universal policies have been used to develop responses to resolve problems in our society. However, both of these approaches have limitations that restrict their ability to create lasting and large scale change that provides everyone an opportunity to thrive.
Universal policies, such as minimum wage or universal basic income, treat everyone the same, regardless of need or circumstance. Blanketed universal policies can deepen inequalities by failing to account for the reality that different groups are situated differently in society.
- Targeted policies, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), single out and give certain benefits or protections to particular subgroups. Benefits or protections given through targeted policies depend on membership in a specified group or eligibility category, such as income level. Because targeted policies leave out members of other groups, this approach can invite resentment and claims of unfairness, making this approach unstable and unable to create lasting change.
Targeted Universalism, in contrast, sets universal goals for the general population that are accomplished through targeted approaches based on the needs of different groups. In this way, targeted universal policies deepen our sense of belonging by working towards a shared goal, while also offering a deeper understanding of equity by calling attention to how people are situated differently. By developing strategies for everyone, rather than specific groups alone, suffering experienced across a population can be acknowledged, and resilience can be built.
Putting Targeted Universalism into Practice
There are five steps to put Targeted Universalism into practice:
- Set a universal goal.
- Assess the general population performance relative to the universal goal.
- Assess and identify the performance of groups that are performing differently with respect to the universal goal.
- Assess and understand the structures and other factors that support or prevent each group from achieving the universal goal.
- Develop and implement targeted strategies for each group to reach the goal.
The graphic below contrasts how targeted and targeted universalism approaches differ in ensuring that 100% of students are proficient in reading by 3rd grade. After setting that universal goal, the next step is knowing and understanding overall performance. In this case, 47% of the students overall are proficient in reading. The numbers tell a very different story when you break it down by race. In this case, the white and Asian populations have about 60% proficiency, whereas the Black and Latinx population is at 30%. A targeted approach to address these inequities would offer additional support only to the Black and Latinx population to bring up their scores. A targeted universalism approach would offer support to each group but differentiated and focused on removing the systemic barriers getting in the way of student success.
An example: COVID-19 & Economic Impacts
Let’s illustrate the concept by exploring the economic impact of COVID-19—specifically unemployment—and related policy responses. As we do this, we will explore the differences among unemployment rates by gender and race and the systemic barriers impeding equitable recovery.
1. Set a universal goal
The first step is to define a universal goal. In this case, we will assume the goal is to return to pre-COVID unemployment rates nationally. The pre-COVID national unemployment rate was 3.7%.
2. Assess the general population performance relative to the universal goal.
The second step is to assess the current state – for the entire population – with respect to the universal goal. The total population unemployment rate as of Quarter 3, 2019 is 8.9%.
3. Assess and identify groups that are performing differently with respect to the universal goal.
Now we need to understand how the unemployment rate varies across population groups. In the table below, you can see how the unemployment rate and percent change over the past year differs by gender, race, and ethnicity.
4. Assess and understand the structures and other factors that support or interfere with each group achieving the universal goal.
At this stage in the process, it is necessary to ask and answer questions such as: What legacies of racism and inequality have we inherited and contributed to? How have our systems and policies created inequitable access to jobs where some population groups are more likely to work in industries more acutely impacted by COVID-19? How have the health disparities across races disproportionately impacted some population groups more than others, and therefore their ability to stay healthy enough to work during this crisis?
5. Develop and implement targeted strategies for each group to reach the goal.
With these questions in mind, we can now evaluate potential interventions and policies and determine their impact across each group and the whole. How might a response be tailored to meet the needs of different populations? Contrast that approach with other policies such as the CARES Act funding. How would you tailor the response to be a targeted universal approach?
- A universal approach→ Make loans made widely available to all businesses to keep employees on staff.
- A targeted approach → Make loans available to minority-owned business owners.
- A targeted universal approach → Provide a small amount of support to white-owned businesses to help return to pre-COVID unemployment rates. Provide larger loans and grants to minority-owned businesses.
As you can see from this exercise, Targeted Universalism requires exploration of systemic barriers and opportunities for targeted interventions and policies. When putting these policies forward, there are a few strategies useful to make the case. FSG offers the following key insights in their paper How to Generate Consensus for Targeted Universalism:
1. Providing disaggregated data is critical to understanding disparities in the outcomes you’re seeking to improve.
2. Spend time comparing the impacts of targeted, universal, and targeted universal interventions. Explore the pros and cons of each approach.
3. Provide time and space for difficult conversations with stakeholders.
Explore more about targeted universalism below. Has your community or organization adopted a Targeted universalism approach? We’d love to hear about it! Share your story here.