In the 1970s a group of disability activists in Berkeley, California got the city to take out a curb and install a sloped ramp of concrete. This action in Berkeley sparked advocacy for so-called “curb-cuts” across the country so that those living with disabilities would enjoy increased mobility. It led to hundreds of thousands of curb-cuts and a requirement for curb-cuts was included in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But curb-cuts don’t just help those in wheelchairs. They also are beneficial if you are wheeling luggage, pushing a stroller or shopping cart, riding a bicycle or a skateboard, or roller-blading. One study found that 9 out of 10 unencumbered pedestrians go out of their way to use curb-cuts. This phenomenon of a change designed to benefit one group helping a broader group is commonly referred to as the curb-cut effect.
A Rising Tide Floats All Boats
In 1944 the U.S. passed the “G.I. Bill” which provided subsidies for returning WWII soldiers to attend college. Over 8 million American veterans took advantage of the educational funding provided in the G.I. Bill. The benefits of the program went way beyond our veterans as the flux of new college students led to wide-ranging economic benefits for the U.S. It also led to the creation of new colleges and the expansion of existing ones which created greater access to higher education for generations of future students.
Another example is that programs that promote job training provide benefits way beyond just those who receive the training — it reduces the need for social welfare programs, provides employers with a larger pool of qualified employees, and generates greater economic growth which benefits everyone.
Thus, helping one group of people can lead to broader benefits in society. It’s not a zero-sum game. Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Angela Glover Blackwell notes,
There’s an ingrained societal suspicion that intentionally supporting one group hurts another. That equity is a zero-sum game. In fact, when the nation targets support where it is needed most—when we create the circumstances that allow those who have been left behind to participate and contribute fully—everyone wins. The corollary is also true: When we ignore the challenges faced by the most vulnerable among us, those challenges, magnified many times over, become a drag on economic growth, prosperity, and national well-being.
Knowing about the curb-cut effect can shift our views of creating programs that benefit a specific group of people — it’s not necessarily a zero-sum game and helping those who need the most help can lead to benefits for everyone.