Automating Inequality

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* Book: Automating Inequality. By Virginia Eubanks. Macmillan, 2019



"The State of Indiana denies one million applications for healthcare, foodstamps and cash benefits in three years—because a new computer system interprets any mistake as “failure to cooperate.” In Los Angeles, an algorithm calculates the comparative vulnerability of tens of thousands of homeless people in order to prioritize them for an inadequate pool of housing resources. In Pittsburgh, a child welfare agency uses a statistical model to try to predict which children might be future victims of abuse or neglect.

Since the dawn of the digital age, decision-making in finance, employment, politics, health and human services has undergone revolutionary change. Today, automated systems—rather than humans—control which neighborhoods get policed, which families attain needed resources, and who is investigated for fraud. While we all live under this new regime of data, the most invasive and punitive systems are aimed at the poor.

In Automating Inequality, Virginia Eubanks systematically investigates the impacts of data mining, policy algorithms, and predictive risk models on poor and working-class people in America. The book is full of heart-wrenching and eye-opening stories, from a woman in Indiana whose benefits are literally cut off as she lays dying to a family in Pennsylvania in daily fear of losing their daughter because they fit a certain statistical profile.

The U.S. has always used its most cutting-edge science and technology to contain, investigate, discipline and punish the destitute. Like the county poorhouse and scientific charity before them, digital tracking and automated decision-making hide poverty from the middle-class public and give the nation the ethical distance it needs to make inhumane choices: which families get food and which starve, who has housing and who remains homeless, and which families are broken up by the state. In the process, they weaken democracy and betray our most cherished national values."



by Jake Whitney:

"Automating Inequality, Virginia Eubanks’ new book about how automated eligibility systems “profile, police, and punish” the poor, is loaded with horror stories like Young’s. They are not all as tragic, but serve as alarming evidence that Americans continue to treat poor people as second-class citizens. Eubanks’ central premise is that the poor are largely portrayed, particularly by conservatives, as either criminals or freeloaders and as the main problem with American society. Because of this portrayal, Americans tolerate systems that dehumanize and surveil the poor to a degree that would not be tolerated if the systems were designed for other classes.

While supporters of automated systems claim they increase efficiency and remove prejudice from decision making, Eubanks contends that, in fact, these systems possess inherent biases and make benefits harder to obtain, overturning the gains won by the welfare movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Eubanks’ argument is powerful, but the book would have benefitted from a deeper discussion of income inequality and the policies that aggravate it. Indeed, the gap between rich and poor in America is wider than it’s been since the Great Depression, and it’s harder than ever for poor Americans to ascend the income ladder. Policies such as trickle-down economics, mass incarceration, and outsized court fees help keep the poor poor. Automated eligibility systems, Eubanks reveals, also play a role.

The biggest victory of the welfare rights movement, Eubanks tells us, was a court ruling that redefined welfare as personal property, not charity. This meant due process had to be provided to recipients before benefits were removed. The ruling led to a long stretch when the poor could easily access benefits.

But in the 1980s, conservative politicians began portraying recipients as lazy blacks, and the media ran with it. Restrictive new rules were implemented and hyperbolic stories of rampant welfare fraud appeared in newspapers and on television. All this led to what Eubanks calls a “political sleight of hand”: politicians claimed automated systems reduced fraud and increased efficiency while the real intent was to degrade due process and shrink welfare rolls.

She offers these eye-opening statistics: In 1973, nearly half of Americans living below the poverty line received much-needed AFDC benefits. Today, that number is less than 10 percent. Also in 1973, four of five children living in poverty received benefits. Today—in our far, far richer nation—fewer than one in five poor kids do. Automated systems, Eubanks writes, “acted like walls, standing between poor people and their legal rights.” (