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Promoting Social Equity in Local Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Vanessa Lopez-Littleton
May 20, 2016

In an ideal world, policy and governing decisions would be made behind John Rawls’ veil of ignorance, shielded from the knowledge of how individuals within a society would benefit from any decisions made. In the absence of a veil of ignorance and based on patterns of housing discrimination, residential segregation, concentrated poverty and widespread disparate outcomes, social equity in the public sector has become an ideal to which the public sector strives.


As we know, the distribution of public resources is one of the most important functions of government. Some argue for equality by contending justice and fairness are associated with providing the same of level and quality of services to everyone without regard to their individual standing. In contrast, I argue that equity is about understanding needs and providing those with the greatest needs additional opportunities to achieve (some degree of) parity.

As a discipline, public administration has struggled to understand and administer principles underlying social equity. Because living in any American city has negative as well as positive externalities, we must also recognize living in an area with concentrated disadvantage has even greater negative consequences for those residing there. As such, it is imperative that cities work to improve the health and well-being of those residing in them. 

During the past year, I have worked with the City of Sanford, Fla., in studying economically distressed communities there. Sanford drew nationwide attention following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Using a map created by The Racial Dot Map, where one dot on the map represents one resident on the 2010 census, a glaring racial divide was revealed showing high concentrations of black residents in certain areas of the city and whites residents elsewhere. With other maps, we were able to show that the places where blacks were heavily concentrated were also the places with the highest unemployment rates and lowest per capita income. Because residential segregation is the single most important social determinant of health, the city can use this information to begin conversations about promoting social equity in economically distressed communities as a shared responsibility with other local governments and communities.

Toward that end, the following three considerations are extracted from an extensive list of recommendations developed for the City of Sanford to promote social equity in economically distressed communities.

First, city governments should consider adopting a healthy city philosophy by implementing a health in all policies approach to policymaking. Throughout the past several decades, Sanford and other cities across the country have divested in economically distressed communities. In order to improve the quality of life for residents residing in these communities, local governments will need to work deliberately to improve living conditions. In Sanford, this means coordinating with county officials and working to develop strategic alliances to support the capacity of the city to make impactful changes.

Second, city officials must acknowledge historic insults and work to redress grievances felt by those who were affected. In cities with deep racial divides, officials must remain cognizant of the impact of those who have been victimized. The compounding of the insult along with other vulnerabilities may disrupt opportunities to bring communities together. Recently, black residents from Sanford demanded an apology from the City of Sanford for closing a city pool after a federal law required them to integrate a “white only” pool. Although the event occurred more than 50 years ago, the issue still resonates with some residents. In civil societies, when a wrong is inflicted an acknowledgement of the transgression—coupled with comparable reparations—can go along way toward healing and reconciliation.

Third, city officials should consider creating or supporting mobility programs that provide affordable housing options. Such programs vary and include an array of housing support alternatives, including: advocacy, education, enforcement of fair housing laws, landlord education, homeownership training, subsidies and housing options in higher opportunity neighborhoods. Several years ago, the City of Sanford closed the Sanford Housing Authority. Although the city provided residents with options for relocation, the lack of low-income and affordable housing units in the city has been drastically reduced. In order to move forward, the city will need to consider mixed-use housing or implement an innovative housing program that creates access to affordable housing opportunities far and away from the current (segregated) model.

Author: Vanessa Lopez-Littleton, Ph.D., RN, is an assistant professor in the department of health, human services and public policy at California State University, Monterey Bay. Her research focuses on social equity, cultural competence and racial and ethnic health disparities. 

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One Response to Promoting Social Equity in Local Government

  1. Pingback: Careful…I use the “R” word. Promoting Social Equity in Local Government | Stirring Up Trouble by DrVLoLil

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