Moving People Forward: How Equity Leads to Greater Progress

United Way has a long history of mobilizing resources for people in need. But is that enough?

The entrenched issues facing our region, such as income inequality and the achievement gap, have not been solved. According to Talk Poverty, Massachusetts has one of the widest gaps between high- and low-income families, ranking 48th in the nation. Over 25 percent of Black and African American children and over 33 percent of Latinx children grow up in poverty in Massachusetts, according to the Kids Count Data Center.

As a result, innovative nonprofits, government leaders and businesses are pushing themselves to think deeper. 

Thinking deeper means thinking about equity. Equity is the idea that all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or financial need, should have equal access to opportunity. Achieving that goal means honest consideration not only of need, but of the structural inequities that hold people back.


Take credit. Today, credit magnifies the impact of poverty in communities of color. But it doesn’t have to. Imagine the progress that could be made if the credit system was used to foster social justice, instead of further marginalizing those in financial distress. 

Cynthia Jones lives in Roxbury, a Boston neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of subprime credit scores in the state.  Two years ago, Cynthia attended United Way’s Greater Boston Project Connect, a one-day community resource fair at the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston. “When you are dealing with life day in and day out with no credit and not enough income, it takes its toll,” she said. Cynthia hoped to find resources to improve her financial and overall well-being to not just help her survive—but thrive.   

Cynthia had always worried that checking her credit score would discourage her even more. But that day, she did, and her score wasn’t as disastrous as she thought.  More importantly, she was able to develop an action plan. Cynthia met a financial coach from the Roxbury Center for Financial Empowerment, who helped her set goals for building her credit and savings. Following a few simple steps, her credit score increased by 100 points over the next year.

Turns out, this simple step was just the catalyst Cynthia needed to move forward. But not everyone has access to effective, affordable credit building resources. When credit scores are analyzed by demographic factors, it becomes clear that zip code too often is a predictor of lower scores. 

According to data reported by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, “half of consumers in Springfield, Lawrence, and the Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury and Mattapan have subprime credit scores, compared to just 8 percent in Newton and the Beacon Hill neighborhood.”  The report also notes “about 1 in 3 residents of Roxbury and Mattapan have debt collections on their credit reports, compared to just 5 percent in several higher-income Boston neighborhoods.”

There are more than 236,000 people in Greater Boston who do not have a prime credit score.  These Bostonians face higher fees and lack access to credit required to pursue education, buying a car, or building a business. This is just one reason that Boston has one of the highest income-inequality rates in the country.

In response, United Way launched Boston Builds Credit, a movement in partnership with the City of Boston and LISC Boston to make credit work for everyone, particularly for residents of neighborhoods that have faced systemic discrimination. 


Issues of inequity, and the disparities it creates, can start at birth.  To look at these issues more deeply, United Way recently sent two parent leaders from Boston’s Family and Engagement Network to join parents from nine other cities at the national Early Childhood Learning and Innovation Network where they created a ‘manifesto for change.” The manifesto outlines guiding principles to engage all parents, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic status, in their child’s education and school community.  

The manifesto notes that an undercurrent of racism and bias in society as a whole creates barriers that “prevent many parents of color from being true partners and leaders in their child’s healthy development and learning” and makes recommendations to address access to resources, workforce diversity and more.

Why does this matter? Those educational disparities ultimately lead to wider gaps in students’ educational success in elementary and high school.  According to “#1 For Some,” a report issued last year by the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership: 

  • Latino students and students from low-income families are less likely to access early childhood education programs than other student groups.
  • In Massachusetts, fewer than 1 in 3 Black and Latino 4th graders are on grade level in reading – half the rate for the state’s White students.
  • Only 28% of low-income 8th graders are on grade level in math – again, less than half the rate for higher income students.
  • 1 in 3 English learners don’t graduate on time – and 1 in 7 drop out of school entirely.

“These disparities have profound and lasting consequences for individual students, for our economy, and for our democracy. In our state, as across the country, the relationship between education, individual earnings, unemployment, and civic engagement are undeniable. With the state’s continuously changing demographics, Massachusetts’ success depends largely on the success of low-income students and students of color,” the report states.

The issue is catching the attention of more than the education advocates. Last month, New England Patriots Players Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Matthew Slater and Duron Harmon testified on Beacon Hill in support of legislation to update the Commonwealth’s 25-year old education funding formula, saying “the state’s aging formula woefully underestimated the resources necessary to give low-income students needed supports and equal opportunities.” 


“United Way understands that in order to achieve true economic and educational equity in the region, we must take into account not only financial need, but also the disparities that exist in our region based on demographics like race and ethnicity plus other factors that make people vulnerable,” says Karley Ausiello, Senior Vice President for Community Impact at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.  “With this focus, we can create more equitable access to the resources of our community.” 

Last year, United Way shifted its formula for grant-making to address not only need, but also equity.  Leveraging a framework developed by Dr. Atyia Martin, CEO and Founder at All Aces, Inc., United Way analyzed its entire footprint (down to the neighborhood level) and considered the factors that make people more or less resilient.  

“We recognized that the more socially vulnerable a person is, the greater their risk of experiencing major setbacks such as homelessness or dropping out of school, and the less likely they are to bounce back from those events,” says Ausiello. Along with looking at the unique needs of each community, United Way embedded that formula into its approach to grantmaking, ensuring equity would be a factor in mobilizing resources for lasting change.

“We have an intentional focus on equity because that’s what helps us to identify what conditions are creating the social vulnerability in the first place, and then we can go after changing those systems where the impact of historic discrimination or exclusion still ripples in our footprint and prevents all families from realizing their potential,” says Ausiello. 

Given our mission to create lasting change, United Way is devoting this month to highlighting equity and the role it plays in uniting our region around greater financial opportunity and educational success for everyone. 

Readers can look forward to hearing more from the parents who wrote the early education manifesto for change. We will also profile a nonprofit community development corporation that’s empowering a diverse community of South End residents to achieve success together.