Automating Inequality

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* Book: Automating Inequality. By Virginia Eubanks.



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.” (