Saturday, January 5, 2019

Book Review: 'Automating Inequality' by Virginia Eubanks

Target, track, punish. Repeat.

Notwithstanding what the French wrote on the Statue of Liberty, America hates its poor. It will spend billions to deny them help. In Automated Inequality, Virginia Eubanks says we manage the poor so we don’t have to eradicate poverty. Instead, we have developed a Digital Poorhouse – high tech containment of the poor and recording of their every action, association and activity. The great innovation today is the prediction model, using the child, the parents, neighbors and even the neighborhood to predict when a child should be removed and given to foster care – before anything has happened.

America’s war against its poor goes back some 200 years. It has put them in poorhouses and debtors’ prisons, made it difficult or impossible for them to live freely and raise a family, denied them benefits set out in law, sterilized them, and contemplated encouraging them to just die. The latest iteration is high tech. Government tracks the movements, purchases, and habits of those unfortunate enough to seek its help. It’s all automated. Decisions are made by algorithms, and undoing the ensuing mess is somewhere between exasperating and impossible. Eubanks explores three very different and widely separated approaches to managing, manipulating and controlling the poor in Indiana, the homeless in Los Angeles, and the child welfare in Pittsburgh.

-During the financial crisis, when millions lost jobs and homes, Indiana actually reduced the percentage of the legally poor on welfare from 38% to 8. It hired IBM to centralize all activity, including document collection. Local caseworkers disappeared, becoming call center agents. They were measured on productivity – how little time they spent with applicants. The slightest error in the 30 document process meant instant automatic denial of benefits. Applicants received a notice of “Failure to co-operate” with no explanation whatsoever. This could include failure to answer the phone for an interview the system rescheduled without notice, failure sign in the numerous places required, and failure of the system to scan and enter the documents submitted. One woman was confined to a hospital bed when they called her home. She was immediately cut off from all benefits, including Medicaid for her cancer, free transport to medical appointments, and foods stamps. They day after she died, she won her appeal.

-Los Angeles has worked hard to gentrify Skid Row. Rather than allow renovation, it has actually removed more housing than there are homeless there. Rumors of the availability of a room can cause lineups for days. LA has spent $11 million collecting data on individuals, but almost all are still homeless. It has been an exercise in tracking and surveillance, with ever more intrusive questionnaires and interviews, mental health tests, and essentially no hope of permanent placement. But everyone goes through the process, often several times, providing intimate details to be used against them. Police apply huge pressure to get the poor out of there, adding to their life records. In 2006, they made 9000 arrests and 12,000 citations in an area with a population of maybe 15,000.

-Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) has a data warehouse of every contact anyone has ever had with public services, including data like the date, amount and location of every purchase with a welfare card. It’s an average of 800 pieces of information per person. Algorithms decide if children are at risk of abuse or neglect. The error rate for both false positives and false negatives is high, putting children, and their parents, at risk. Naturally, an outsized percentage of cases involve those who are poor and black. But the reality is that most of the children investigated are not physically or sexually abused. They are poor.

Eubanks rails against us looking the other way, being indifferent, fearing for our own status, and other such liberal guilt. It makes the book end badly. It detracts from the premise that big data is taking over entire lives, keeping people in their place and preventing the help lawmakers prescribe. The blame needs to stay at the top, even if the solution might come from the bottom. 

The punchline in all these scenarios is that poverty costs more money than it’s worth. President Nixon saw this in the late 60s. He proposed a national basic income. With money in bank accounts, the need for monitoring, surveillance, recordkeeping, data centers, courts and enforcement all but disappears. The system both pays for itself and improves lives. But America is at war with its poor, so “our vast and expensive public service bureaucracy primarily functions to investigate whether individuals’ suffering might be their own fault.”

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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