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Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor

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A powerful investigative look at data-based discrimination—and how technology affects civil and human rights and economic equity

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.

This deeply researched and passionate book could not be more timely.

Naomi Klein: "This book is downright scary."

Ethan Zuckerman, MIT: "Should be required reading."

Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body: "A must-read for everyone concerned about modern tools of inequality in America."

Astra Taylor, author of The People's Platform: "This is the single most important book about technology you will read this year."

260 pages, Hardcover

First published January 23, 2018

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About the author

Virginia Eubanks

4 books119 followers
Virginia Eubanks is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University at Albany, SUNY. She is the author of Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor; Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age; and co-editor, with Alethia Jones, of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith. Her writing about technology and social justice has appeared in Scientific American, The Nation, Harper’s, and Wired. For two decades, Eubanks has worked in community technology and economic justice movements. She was a founding member of the Our Data Bodies Project and a 2016-2017 Fellow at New America. She lives in Troy, NY.

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Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,295 reviews120k followers
January 27, 2022
If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be … For the poor you will always have with you in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ - (Deuteronomy 15:7-11)
The law, it its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. -- Anatole France
The poorhouse. These days, it’s common parlance for extreme financial misfortune. Someone who has had a particularly bad fiscal spell could be said to be heading to the poorhouse. These days, we do not have literal, brick and mortar poorhouses. Those were usually fetid places, ill-maintained, offering meager shelter and food to the detritus of society, the poor, ill, elderly, and disabled, often requiring labor in return. These days, we have something new.
America’s poor and working-class people have long been subject to invasive surveillance, midnight raids, and punitive public policy that increase the stigma and hardship of poverty. During the nineteenth century, they were quarantined in county poorhouses. During the twentieth century they were investigated by caseworkers, treated like criminals on trial. Today we have forged a digital poorhouse from databases, matched algorithms and statistical risk models. It promises to eclipse the reach and repercussions of everything that came before.
The most famous poorhouse resident in literature is one Oliver Twist. In the novel of that name, Dickens intended to highlight the inhumanity of the Poor Law Act of 1834. The world of poverty he described was, while literarily thrilling, a horrifying exposé of man’s cruelty to man. Poorhouses found a home in the USA as well. The first poorhouse in the city of my current residence was established in 1863. In my erstwhile lifelong home, New York, an 1824 law directed the counties of the state to erect poorhouses. Residents could be required to do whatever work the superintendent demanded. Any resistance resulted in being kicked out. Among other sources for the poorhouse population, children younger than 15 caught begging could be legally remanded there until the person in charge of the poorhouse let them out. There were certainly poorhouses in NY earlier than that. The first poorhouse in the USA was in Boston, in 1662.

Virginia Eubanks - from her Twitter page

Virginia Eubanks has been involved with economic justice movements for over twenty years. She is an associate Prof of Poli Sci at the SUNY Albany campus. Her writing about tech in social justice has appeared in The American Prospect, The Nation, Harper’s and Wired. She is a founding member of the Our Data Bodies project, which looks at how the gathering and use of digital info by government impacts our rights. In Automating Inequality, Eubanks offers a bit of history on the poorhouse, noting, with particular relevance for the operation of today’s prisons, and other bits of outsourcing of government welfare responsibilities, that privately run poorhouses led to the residents being particularly exploited and deprived of necessities in order to increase profits for the owners, not that the publicly run ones were any great shakes. Her central notion is that the physical poorhouse of the past has been replaced in the 21st century by a modern version.
For all their high-tech polish, our modern systems of poverty management—automated decision-making, data mining, and predictive analytics—retain a remarkable kinship with the poorhouses of the past. Our new digital tools spring from punitive, moralistic views of poverty and create a system of high-tech containment and investigation that I call the digital poorhouse. The digital poorhouse deters the poor from accessing public resources; polices their labor, spending, sexuality, and parenting; tries to predict their future behavior; and punishes and criminalizes those who do not comply with its dictates. In the process, it creates ever-finer moral distinctions between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, categorizations that rationalize our national failure to care for one another.
She takes two approaches. First is tracking the history of how the poor have been treated, noting the Dickensian era preference for punishing the poor overtly, by shunting them into miserable institutions, if providing any aid at all, then a revolutionary approach called Scientific Charity, which employed caseworkers applying the methodology of police work in examining the merits of a person’s application for aid,
As Mary Richmond wrote in Social Diagnosis, her 1917 textbook on casework procedures, “the reliability of the evidence on which [caseworkers] base their decisions should be no less rigidly scrutinized than is that of legal evidence by opposing counsel.” Scientific charity treated the poor as criminal defendants by default.
the reversal of reliance on private charity with the New Deal, the paring back of benefits in the 1970s, beginning the use of computer technology to exclude applicants, and sundry mechanisms being used today.

The second is to offer case studies, on-site looks at three locations. Homelessness is the focus in Los Angeles, the outsourcing of welfare systems in Indiana, and child custody issues at the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF) in Pittsburgh.

In short, Eubanks offers a history of US public policy on poverty, along with the mechanisms employed in various eras to manage, and limit public outlays to address it, a look at the mechanisms now in use that serve to exclude applicants rather than enhance service, and an analysis of how those systems impact people today. She very successfully bridges the gap between theory and reality with her field studies. This is what’s going on. This is how it affects people.

Instead of being shunted to three-dimensional concrete buildings, today’s poor are far too frequently denied public services, while the state, in addition, often erects barricades to the poor finding a way out of their situation by making it more difficult for them to get a job. Apparently biblical predictions were not considered adequate to the task, so we appear to be committed, as a society, to keeping the poor poor. We apparently prefer for them to remain that way. Hating the poor has been a national addiction since the invasion of North America by religious extremists. We are so addicted to hating on the poor that we have managed, with very few exceptions in our national history, to define poverty at such an insanely low level of income that the majority of poor people are denied even the dubious comfort of fitting the official definition. For example, the US Census Bureau defines its poverty threshold as $12,331 for a single person. So, if you are a single person, earning, say, $12,500 a year, you are not considered poor. Congratulations! And if you are over 65, that line drops to $11,367. I guess we seniors must eat less. Right, whatever.

I am no stranger to such topics, and while the broad strokes of her Bruegelesque depiction of our welfare system might not be all that surprising, as with the painting, there is much to be appreciated by looking at the details. There were pieces of information in here that were surprising. Did you know that the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal era) imposed a cap of 10% black recruits during the Depression, despite the dramatically higher unemployment rate they experienced? Or that half of us spend at least some portion of our lives in poverty?

Eubanks offers many instances of Kafkaesque, sometimes deadly results of how people are treated by welfare systems. It is amazing to me that there have not been thousands of incidents of people so frustrated by this mean-spirited, cruel system that they go postal on social service agencies across the nation. Probably because they can’t afford the hardware. God knows it’s easy enough to buy.

When you are poor you surrender your rights as a citizen, hell, as a human being. Innocent until proven guilty? Not once you apply for any sort of public assistance. The right to parent your own child? The right to confront your accusers? Not if a hostile neighbor calls in an anonymous false report accusing you of neglecting your kid. The right to choose your sexual partners? Not if the welfare agency deems that person inappropriate. The right to counsel? Nope. You are on your own, with the entire resources of the state aligned against you. Offer any resistance to or question the caseworkers who are assigned your case and you are denied benefits. It’s yes, Massa, no, Massa, or you are out on the street, and in many places you can be fined and/or put in jail for being homeless.

While I am a senior citizen, retired, with only Social Security for my personal income, I am blessed with a spouse who remains employed full time. But I have had my share of interactions with the welfare and legal systems. When I was 18 years old, I had my own apartment. But after a significant industrial accident, (I was working at a large Postal Service facility in Manhattan) I was unable to work for a long time, several months of which was spent in hospitals. I was covered by worker’s comp, but it took so long for benefits to begin that I lost my apartment. Thanks, guys. At least I had a fallback, however unpleasant that may have seemed at the time. I have had just loads of fun dealing with unemployment, having endured that most American of experiences, the layoff, more than once. After one particularly frustrating interaction at an unemployment office, I ripped a large piece of hardware off the wall of the men’s bathroom. (Statute of limitations is passed for that one, right?) In another I was denied benefits, because I made a typo (press 1 to be insulted, press 2 to be denied, press 3 to be put on permanent hold) in an interactive system that would not allow human contact. While out of work for most of four years, and being held responsible for child support (while having joint custody) based on what I had earned in my highest earnings year ever, I had my driver’s license suspended by the state of New York, because I was unable, not unwilling, unable to pay the considerable monthly sum. Not a small thing, as many of the companies that hired people with my skill set were located in suburbia. Way to help. It took several years before the court accepted the fact (helped along by the reams of documentation I produced) that I had been unable to get work in systems, and had taken a shit-paying job as a security guard because it was the only thing I could get. The support arrears that accumulated during this period helped force me into dire financial straits. So, while I am decidedly middle-class by education and inclination, I have first-hand knowledge of how systems that at least purport to be helpful can do their best to make a bad situation worse, permanent even. I live in dread of the day when I have to face these systems again. (It will almost certainly come) And I am doing ok. The people Eubanks writes of are, mostly, not.

Dealing with welfare agencies, with or without their associated, gun-toting uniformed sorts, or their legal enforcers, is horrifying enough. With the expansion of data collection, and monitoring, real and potential, with the widespread sharing of collected information (privacy rights? You’re kidding, right?) with a vast array of other government entities (and private entities too, where service provision or data collection is outsourced) as well as any law enforcement agency that asks for it, Big Brother has become more like the entire Manson Family. They are watching, and any mis-step, real or imagined, any spark of resistance, real or imagined, any error on your part, real or imagined, can get you cut off whatever public benefit you are on, thus increasing your poverty, reducing your life expectancy and increasing your risk of being incarcerated in what has become that contemporary replacement for the poorhouse of old, jail. There are even systems in place that look at projected behavior, that put one darkly in mind of the film (and story) Minority Report.

Virginia Eubanks has written a piercing appraisal of how the new technology of the digital age has given the state unimaginable power over the lives of any who are forced into contact with it. The needs of the poor are not different from the needs of the middle class. But the latter, with the means to take care of those needs in the private market, can minimize contact with the beast that is the welfare/legal system. Once one comes into contact with that beast, a person is marked, indelibly, for decades or forever.

What can be done? As is often the case, big problems do not lend themselves to simple fixes. Eubanks offers an array of actions that might be taken to help in the Dismantling of the Data Poorhouse. She has highlighted truths we should be aware of, and notes groups that should be targeted for a bit of consciousness raising. Mostly the proposed remedies sound sane, but unlikely, not a rare thing in books about sociopolitical ills.

The strengths of this book are many. I was reminded very much of Barbara Ehrenreich’s perceptive writings on diverse important matters of public policy. Eubanks has dug deeply into the underlying realities of being poor in America and filled in a lot of the blanks. (BTW, it make a perfect companion to the excellent book White Trash), and should find a natural home in college and graduate school classes on poverty and public policy. People who are poor already know a lot of what is in here, although even the reader of meager means will still find fascinating information. The middle class, or wealthy reader will, hopefully, have their eyes opened (dare we say their consciousness raised?), finding serial unsuspected revelations in Automating Inequality. But the most significant group of readers who should read this are those who, like me, have lived at least a bit in both worlds, particularly those who, currently not a part of the public welfare/legal system, expect they never will be, and disparage those who are as lazy or morally suspect.
poverty is not an island; it is a borderland. There’s quite a lot of movement in the economic fringes, especially across the fuzzy boundary between the poor and the working class. Those who live in the economic borderlands are pitted against one another by policy that squeezes every possible dime from the wallets of the working class at the same time that it cuts social programs for the poor and absolves the professional middle class and wealthy of their social obligations. - [see recent tax cuts for the 1%]
As the powers in Washington, and in many of our states, seek to dim the lights of our shining city on a hill, it will be up to those who are not wealthy or connected, those who work for low wages, those who are jobless, those who earn, while knowing that a layoff could happen any day, those who can see through the porous barriers between the middle class, the working poor, and the distraught, to comprehend and act on the need to join forces in order to rekindle that flame. As Eubanks points out, and as you probably already know, in your heart of hearts
…systems designed for the poor will eventually be used on everyone.
It’s enough to enrage and/or depress Dickens.

Review first posted – January 19, 2018

Publication date – January 16, 2018

==========In the summer of 2019 GR reduced the allowable review size by 25%, from 20,000 to 15,000 characters. Then in Summer 2021 they decreed that external links would not longer be allowed in comments, where I used to put the review overage. So I have included the entirety of the review on my site, Coot’s Reviews. Stop by and say Hi!

Profile Image for Trevor.
1,293 reviews21.7k followers
March 22, 2019
As I’m getting older, I’m finding right-wing nastiness increasingly hard to take. You know, in a week when the consequences of the endless rhetoric of the right-wing hate machine were told upon the bodies of 50 Muslims in New Zealand, I’m hoping that just maybe the hate filled will no longer get away with the demonization of an entire religion (that is, nearly a quarter of the world’s population) as if this was somehow okay.

This book shows that right-wing nasty bastards not only hate people who look different to them, they hate their own people too. This book is frequently too painful to read. It gives example after example of how we turn our backs on the most vulnerable in their time of most abject need – those who require our love, care and protection are cast aside and punished for the outrage of becoming sick, or of losing their job, or of suffering a mental illness. The last one is particularly cruel in a society that does all it can to cause anxiety and a sense of hopeless isolation. The sheer viciousness of the means we employ to punish the most unfortunate in our society is breathtaking in its effectiveness. If you were to design a system to removed all hope from the majority of the citizens of a society, you would struggle to better what is currently in place in the United States.

When I first started here on Good Reads, I got into an email argument with an American woman. She wrote to me off-line to put me straight about a review I’d written on a book that discussed the poor in her country – She told me I’d misunderstood their plight, thinking it was somehow something deserving of compassion and sympathy, when, if I truly understood America, I would have realised that if only these lazy bastards were prepared to work, then they too would be able to share in the prosperity of the American dream. She told me that she already knew I wouldn’t understand, since I lived in a socialist country (the idea Australia could be considered a socialist country by anyone – even an American – still makes me smile), but what I would be fundamentally unable to ever understand was that ‘freedom’ means everything to Americans. I told her I found it hard to see the pleasure of ‘freedom’ if it meant watching those around you die without healthcare, but she seemed to consider this a bizarre misunderstanding. In fact, her daughter had had a kidney transplant which had saved her life, and which this woman had been able to pay for, given her private health insurance. To her, the citizens of the US were the luckiest country in the world. I asked about the children of parents who did not have health care – a child whose only fault was to be born to the wrong parents, and for committing this faux pas would die while her much more prudent daughter would live. At about this time she blocked me.

I can’t pretend I was surprised or even upset. I don’t particularly like confrontations, and I couldn’t see how we could continue chatting without getting into confrontations. I;ve read lots of books over the years that have told me I need to ‘engage’ with people who disagree with me, to seek to find ‘a middle ground’ – but actually, I’m becoming increasingly less convinced by such arguments. I think we need to start to shift the debate. I think we need to become as clear in our moral disgust for the inhuman policies of the right as they have been about their made-up ‘welfare cheats’.

And if you need your moral outrage primed, then this is the book to read. With horror story after horror story, you really do have to keep reminding yourself that the United States is actually the richest nation on earth. I’m going to quote this bit in full:

“Poverty in America is not invisible. We see it, and then we look away.

“Our denial runs deep. It is the only way to explain a basic fact about the United States: in the world’s largest economy, the majority of us will experience poverty. According to Mark Rank’s groundbreaking life-course research, 51 percent of Americans will spend at least a year below the poverty line between the ages of 20 and 65.”

This is what increasingly unrestrained capitalism delivers – a society without compassion, a society where the majority suffer depravation, but more, where the vast majority are held in check by their precarious terror of falling into the underclass because they might fall sick, or lose their job, or separate from their partner, or get bashed by their partner, or be in an accident. And why are they terrified? Because they know how the underclass is treated. They know that the system is set up to punish to poor, to remove all dignity from them and to rush them to early graves.

The book provides a history of the regulation of poverty in the US. A chapter is called From Poorhouse to Database – and that’s just it – today the horrors of the poorhouse have been recreated in the algorithms of computer databases – so that poor parents live in terror that their children will be stolen from them because they are receive negative marks in that assessment, and the negative mark is made more likely because they are black. That people (including the author in this case) might lose access to healthcare because they made the mistake of getting sick shortly after changing their health insurance policy. Or people will have benefits taken from them because they didn’t sign a single page in an endless and pointless form.

This is a book of horrors. One of the most terrifying (I should just call it Kafkaesque) is how systems have been created to provide assistance to experts in their professional judgement, but then, when experts disagree with the decisions of the automated systems, it is the experts who are punished and who then have to learn how to second guess the automated system. And then the biases and the ignorance of the computer programmers becomes the norm toward which all human professionals will be judged.

And it is even worse than this – at least this situation offers some hope that eventually the ‘professionals’ might gain the upper hand and reassert their power. But no, there is no chance of this, because the systems have been changed so that professionals respond to tasks, rather than clients. That is, rather than having clients that the social workers might develop relationships with and then seek to help outside of the ‘rules’ of the system, a computer program randomly assigns clients to social workers to deal with very specific tasks they need help with. The system is literally designed to punish the poor for being poor. Something to remember the next time you hear that the US is a ‘Christian’ country.

And that really is something I struggle most to comprehend. I’m an atheist, I’m happy to admit it, but I know enough about the Bible to know that Jesus said the exact opposite of this. That, in fact, he said that if you really wanted to be a Christian you should give everything you have to the poor. Clearly, there are fewer people who believe in Christianity than tick that particular box on their census form, and also clearly, this little Atheist over here doesn’t quite understand how Christian minds work – there is a mystery operating here that is totally beyond my powers of comprehension.

I’m sorry – but this book has made me angry. If you were looking for an example of how stereotypes work to punish those immediately defined as ‘unworthy’, then this book is a series of textbook exemplars. Australia is becoming more and more like America every day – that we need to redouble our efforts to stop that happening is increasingly obvious to me. All the same, that a nation can allow these horrors to be inflicted upon so many and effectively say, ‘oh well’ – simply beggar’s belief. It is as painfully sad as I can imagine anything being.
Profile Image for John Devlin.
Author 21 books71 followers
December 1, 2020
The author’s premise is wrong.

A billion souls have been freed from abject poverty in the last 25 years bc of free market capitalism.

90% of those in poverty have one or more of these three conditions: jobless, no high school diploma, illegitimate children.

If one avoids the above conditions there’s a 75% chance that person will make over $50k.

America’s war on poverty that started in ‘65 has not changed the poverty rate;however, from 1948 - 1965 it fell from 38% to 15%.

Eubanks bemoans how Big Data oversees poverty programs. As if the millions who take govt aid could be tracked any other way.
She claims child protective services are racist bc a higher percentage of blacks fall under scrutiny. She never mentions the over 70% single-parent rate of blacks.
Broken families make broken children.

Eubanks would just usher in more govt programs, more costs, more bureaucracy, and then write more books on the sad stories of the individuals who lost their benefits bc of the very enormity of the governmental beast she took part in creating.

The govt will never be your family.
The govt will never care for you.
It doesn’t take a village to raise a child.
It takes two well intentioned, well engaged parents.
Nothing more and nothing less.
Profile Image for Anne.
506 reviews1 follower
April 1, 2018
Dynamite subject! How big data impacts, and is impacted by, the way we serve the poor is a topic that is under-addressed, increasingly important, and poorly understood. However, I struggled through this book due to redundancy, more telling than showing, and a too-often tenuous connection between the (worthwhile) arguments advanced and the examples put forward. Oh well.
Profile Image for Frank.
66 reviews9 followers
June 18, 2018
I really wanted to like this book, and was hoping that it would be similar to some talks I've been to lately on unconscious bias in algorithms in the public sector, or using variables (like if your family is in jail) that are basically just a proxy for race. Sadly, it wasn't. The author looks at three different instances of automation in the public sector, and in each continues to point out how evil "technology" is and that she wishes that we could go back to social workers pulling favors for people that they like.

The problem is that in most of these cases, the evil wasn't "technology" it was politics. Indiana wanted to force people off of public benefits, so these rules were coded into the system to achieve this effect. LA decided that they couldn't help all of their homeless, so they'd help the two populations where their help could go the furthest...those very newly (and hopefully temporarily) homeless (often abuse victims, people between jobs, etc.) and the chronic homeless who are on drugs, mentally ill, and need serious help before they hurt someone or themselves. Those in between were left on the streets. Technology didn't do that, public policy did.

Overall, I just found the book super frustrating. Especially the conclusion where the author continues to rail against technology and for universal basic income with no strings/checks in place.
Profile Image for Vipassana.
123 reviews333 followers
March 29, 2018
Policing is broader than law enforcement: it includes all the process by which we maintain order, regulate lives, and press young people into boxes so they will fit our unjust society

These processes are the algorithms and meaningless indexes that are automating public assistance delivery in the US. With three case studies: the automation of Indiana's welfare eligibility, an index that decides which homeless person deserves the LA's attention and predictive tool for child protection services to determine which Pennsylvanian children are at risk of negligence from their caregivers. As a result of these algorithms, people with life-long disabilities lose their medicaid, homeless people are judged as neither too desolate for long term housing nor with the skills necessary to benefit from temporary housing, and parents subject to having their children taken away simply because they or their parents received services from child protection. These victims of these systems trade their most private selves, mental history, relationship status, health, etc in the hope that it might get them the resources they need. These algorithms are proof that our society doesn't believe that those who seek public assistance, have a right to privacy and dignity.

These rigid algorithms don't deliver justice. Equity in public assistance requires the passion that understands the pulse of life beneath the official version of events. Instead these algorithms exacerbate the racism and bias of society. With the help of these three cases, she demonstrates the problem with automated decision making systems, and that the solutions will not come from better algorithms but a reassessment of our values.
The very existance of a social safety net is premised on an agreement to share the social costs of uncertainity

Eubanks challenges the paradigm where a right to public assistance is determined by whether we should or should not feel sorry for the individual who gets it.

In her most pessimistic moment, Eubanks says that we are winning the fight against mass incarceration at just the historic moment when the digital poorhouse has makes the physical institution of the prison less necessary. However, the time for, at least, skepticism has come. We have shown unsubstantiated belief in technology as a panacea to social ills. A must read for everyone in this age of automated decision making.
Profile Image for Wendelle.
1,519 reviews25 followers
July 6, 2020
This book shows that in America, life is very, very hard if you slip through the cracks (through poverty, misfortune, drug addiction, medical problems) and the sorting and monitoring implemented through the new technologies of social programs make it even harder. Scorn of the poor is encoded in the design of welfare or social support programs: applications are summarily dismissed for 'failure to cooperate' during arbitrary dates, poverty is criminalised with laws against homelessness, prospective social program beneficiaries are entered into databases that are shared widely among different organizations where the right to privacy is ignored. In America, then, one lives very much alone, the conclusion of a long concourse of atomisation. There is minimal safety nets to catch the person who slips financially through some tragedy like illness, and punitive measures are ensured to discourage use of social programs, even for circumstances beyond one's control. These things don't happen simply to "lazy people" as it is often scoffed about. In this book there was this one guy who was even in law school before, then he lost his job as a mortgage claims processor, then he lived in his car, then his car got towed, then he couldn't pay for the tow, and now he lost not only his sole remaining asset and temporary house-- his car-- he now had a criminal record because of the unpaid fine. This example shows the chain of events that could hit just about anybody.

I wouldn't necessarily say the author proves the book's thesis, that the emphasis should be laid on technology for the current malaise, rather, the book shows that the political spirit of scorn of poverty prevalent in America is only facilitated by automation, which heightens the facelessness and distance of ordinary people from the processes and suffering undergone by the poor people within the operations of slimmed-down welfare programs.
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,989 reviews699 followers
May 8, 2019
This is one of those "what is to be done" books that winds up making me think "I hope I get hit by a car before shit gets worse."

Remember, kids, when it comes to technology, programmers have been saying it for years. Garbage in, garbage out. In this case the garbage-in is all of the embedded inequalities of American life, whether that's racism, sexism, whatever, or just little simple things like a social worker's reaction to the appearance of a working-class versus a middle-class home. Automate, and you get garbage-out. People who already have enough difficulty navigating the bureaucracy suddenly having their lives further complicated by the notion that the machine has decided their fate. There will be no appeals.

And one of Virginia Eubanks' interview subjects is right. It's been tested on the poor, and it's coming for us in the middle class next.

Should I read books like this, the kind that bum me out this hard? I honestly don't know. Part of me wants to know, but part of me knows that my mental health isn't helped by this.
Profile Image for Roshni Sahoo.
80 reviews6 followers
December 15, 2020
an important read for all data scientists/ML people!!

I kept took some notes while reading and would love to discuss this book w anyone who is curious. To be completely honest, this book did deflate my hope a bit about using machine learning for social good for various reasons.

1) Automated systems and ML will not solve the root cause of social problems.

Eubanks argues that using automated systems to optimally allocate resources doesn't really solve the root social issues and worse, distracts from actually solving problem. (e.g. in the case of housing, LA is collecting data to determine the most vulnerable homeless people and selectively providing housing for SOME of them. Eubanks argues that instead to address ALL homelessness, policymakers should be actively prioritizing making affordable housing possible for ALL people using more $$ and directed efforts.) I can imagine that there are some resource-constrained regimes where ML can actually be useful but Eubanks believes that "homelessness is a human tragedy created by policy decisions and professional middle-class apathy" and can only really be solved by literally building more affordable housing.

2) Machine learning models that predict some socially bad outcome (ex. child abuse) unfairly target the poor.

The third case study Eubanks presents is about a predictive model that is employed to predict whether a child is likely to be abused by their family. I'm not sure that one should even be using a ML model to predict likelihood of child abuse in the first place but even if one wanted to, its not clear to me how you could build such a model without unfairly targeting the poor: Eubanks explains that this model is trained data that comes from tracking data on families who take advantage of some public services (e.g. mental health counseling, drug/alcohol help, therapy...) and reports of abuse from hotline calls. Poor families are more likely to take advantage of free public services, while more affluent families may seek private services. The system almost exclusively is tracking the poor. Also, anyone can anonymously call a hotline and report on a family, and it is very possible that prejudice against the poor could influence those calls.
Profile Image for David Wineberg.
Author 2 books706 followers
January 20, 2018
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 Automating 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.”

David Wineberg
Profile Image for Amber Lea.
686 reviews95 followers
October 3, 2021
This one is hard to rate because it's not perfect. For starters, I would have liked more data and less anecdote. On top of that, it was at times a bit rambley and repetitive. I also think the author called her own credibility into question by opening with an anecdote about how her insurance got cut off and it's because she was flagged for health-care fraud by an automated system. Then she revealed that she doesn't actually know if she was flagged for fraud, she just assumes. Uhh. Probably should have scrapped that anecdote since it's based on a theory. Then she brings it up again toward the end, speaking with total certainty like it for sure happened. Bruv, you said before that you didn't know that it was true.

BUT she still makes a good argument for how the poor shouldn't be treated worse than the middle class simply because they're poor. I completely agree we should protect the privacy, agency, and self-determination of the poor just like we would anyone else, and that in some ways we make things significantly worse for the poor under the guise of "helping". And there's too much focus within different assistance programs on rooting out the undeserving at the expense of people who legitimately need help. I would say most of her points are good? Some of her points about data and technology were suspect to me, but I can't speak to anything being factually incorrect. I just suspect that, like her anecdote about being flagged for fraud, she is maybe jumping to some conclusions. At best my skepticism speaks to her making her points poorly. There were a handful of times where she threw something out there without backing it up, leaving me to decide it if it was worth it for me to look it up and all she needed to do was add like two more sentences to explain.

But I still agree with her larger over arching conclusions even if I don't completely trust her evidence. Honestly, I would probably knock this down more stars, but I'm just really passionate about the idea that the poor deserve their autonomy. I feel like that was really the main point of this book. This book is really about how we should respect the freedom of the poor, not use technology to police them as if they're criminals, and give everyone UBI. I wouldn't give this book to anyone to try to convince them of those points, but I might pull arguments from this book.
Profile Image for Carlos Castillo.
Author 2 books10 followers
May 30, 2018
Read before creating your machine learning models

If you're a researcher or practitioner who wants to create new methods for evaluating risks, prioritizing benefits, or similar applications, read this first. It is a great analysis grounded on the study of three key cases in the US, but from which you can draw general conclusions and guidelines.
Profile Image for Alejandro Teruel.
1,115 reviews213 followers
July 26, 2021
An excellent book, whose heart consists of three chapters covering three unfair information systems developed roughly between 2012 and 2016: the state of Indiana’s automatized welfare eligibility process, a coordinated entry system in Los Angeles to match the homeless with available housing, and the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF)’s Information and Demographics System (KIDS) to predict children which could be at risk of abuse. It makes for a fascinating and non-trivial case study of lack of key features of Value Sensitive Design (VSD), Value-Based Design (VBD) or Responsible Innovation such as missing stakeholders, incomplete ethical and social impact analysis, missing and biased values, and lack of attention to interaction between innovative technology (decision systems), politics and society. A preliminary chapter explains how these systems and their biases are based on the often shocking history of imaginaries about the poor in the US.

Unfortunately, the author somewhat overreaches in the final two chapters, laying the book open to charges of bias. Well worth reading for readers interested in social policies and in counterexamples for ethical systems design.
Profile Image for Sam Powers.
120 reviews1 follower
February 25, 2023
i’ve been intending to read this book for four years now. glad i finally made myself do it given it describes basically my current job. some really thoughtful and impactful stuff. i particularly appreciated the historical analysis. i learned alot about the history of criminalizing poverty
Profile Image for Willy Marz Thiessam.
152 reviews1 follower
January 10, 2018
Virginia Eubanks has done all of us a favor, and we should really appreciate how difficult this must have been. She looks at a large stretch of American history, in how it treats its poor and oppressed minority groups and uses technology to do so. This is not an easy or pleasant thing to come to grips with, but Ms. Eubanks does it with this very readable and succinct volume. She leaves nothing out and brings us to an overall understanding of what has occurred and the general direction.

Everyone will have their own point of view on this. Ms. Eubanks provides ample information both statistical and anecdotal for you to develop your own ideas as to how this menace must be confronted. For me the sheer waste of funds only used to create division and poverty is staggering. Simply treating people with dignity would save money and hardship for everyone. The system to provide assistance is used to control, oppress and perpetuate needless misery. We need people to have the money they need to survive and stop governments and the rich acting like childish bullies to those in greatest need.

Profile Image for Jocelyn.
173 reviews23 followers
March 15, 2018
2.5 stars. I'd been really excited about the book, so I think my rating is lower than it would have been since it didn't live up to my expectations, mostly because many of the arguments were structured around anecdotes.
Profile Image for Raghu.
385 reviews77 followers
January 28, 2021
Rising inequality has been a problem of rapid globalization. The United States saw the new technologies of computers, communication, and Artificial Intelligence as a solution to manage poverty and administer welfare benefits. Virginia Eubanks, academic and author, shows in this book how technology has increased efficiencies but kept the imperfections in the welfare systems intact. Faceless algorithms with their opaque reasoning have made life more difficult for those seeking access to food, shelter, and health care. She uses case studies from Indiana, California, and Pennsylvania to argue her case.

Contemporary American history tells us that President Lyndon Johnson launched a war on poverty in Jan 1964. He wanted to relieve the symptoms of poverty, cure it and prevent it. Fifty years later, we see individuals like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, and many others notch up hundreds of billions of dollars in their personal accounts. The GDP of the US is 32 times higher now compared to 1964. However, poverty still thrives amongst us at 9.2% in 2020. Is it so hard to cure poverty as LBJ wanted? Author Eubanks points to many biases and shortcomings in our approach to dealing with poverty. The American Dream is you can achieve success through risk-taking and hard work rather than waiting for luck. Its flip side is the bias that poverty is the fault of the poor. They won’t be poor if only they would pick themselves up with their bootstraps and work hard. We create welfare systems to mitigate poverty. But they come with a built-in fear that the undeserving would abuse it. Hence, we build them to prevent the undeserving from getting welfare. This means we build systems that are as much focused on denying welfare as they are on giving benefits. Eubanks says that so long as we adopt the differentiation of deserving and undeserving poor, we would continue denying much-needed welfare to those who deserve it. It is the story of poverty eradication in the US.

The book uses three substantial case studies, one from Indiana, one from Los Angeles, CA, and one from Allegheny, PA to support the author’s thesis. In Indiana, the case is on automated decision-making in welfare cases. The Los Angeles case is on allocating housing to the homeless and the Allegheny county case deals with algorithms that target preventative child protection interventions. After investigating all these cases, Eubanks concludes: The Indiana system diverts the poor from public resources they are eligible for. The LA system classifies and criminalizes the poor, and the PA system tries to predict the future behavior of the poor. I do not detail these cases here. I shall touch on some principal arguments of the author to illustrate her conclusions.

In Indiana, the state spent $1.4 billion on IBM and ACS to automate the processes of its welfare programs to make them efficient. The programs worked by linking caseworkers with families they served. During automation, the computer algorithms viewed this relationship as one prone to collusion and fraud. It achieved greater efficiency by breaking this relationship, which takes months and years to develop. One thousand five hundred caseworkers got replaced by software tasks, and the caseworkers became call center agents. So, no one person tracked a case from the beginning till the end as before. This forced citizens to fill out complicated forms, inviting mistakes. Both the applicant and the call center made mistakes. When the computer system identified these mistakes, its response was always to deny benefits to the applicant, citing the dreaded phrase, ‘Failure to cooperate in establishing eligibility’. Indiana denied one million applications in the first three years after automation, a 54 percent increase from three years before. The computer kicked one African-American woman off Medicaid, though she was in the hospital, dying of ovarian cancer. The reason? She missed a recertification appointment and hence ‘failed to co-operate in establishing eligibility’.

Eubanks makes an insightful statement regarding our Law enforcement and Public services. She says state violence happens not only at the hands of Law enforcement but also when we interact with public services, child protection services, and homeless services. For example, they threaten homeless families of taking their children away because they don’t have a home. When the poor apply for public services, they do not know if they would be eligible. Yet, it forces them to release a lot of intimate details about themselves as part of the application process. This is scary because our existing public support system is primarily punitive. They have built-in goals of diversion, moral judgment, and punishment.
The well-off middle classes often say that the homeless can go to the Salvation Army emergency shelter, but they refuse to do so. They prefer to sleep on the streets and so we should not reward them with money. Eubanks interviews a university-educated homeless man on Skid Row in Los Angeles. He says that the Salvation Army forces him to give up his cell phone if he wants to stay in the shelter. Besides, the Salvation Army wants to treat him as nannies treat children. No self-respecting American adult would agree to it and give up his or her freedom.

So, what do we do about poverty? With the COVID-induced increase in poverty and joblessness, the new Biden administration is again contemplating cash grants to the needy. Once the situation stabilizes, should we make a new push to reduce poverty? If so, how do we proceed?
Conservatives like Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation argue that anti-poverty programs are the problem and not the solution. They say that the means-tested entitlements discourage the poor from breaking out of poverty. For example, if a woman makes $15K a year, she gets state benefits. If she works more and increases her income to $20K, she loses much of the extra $5K through reduced benefits. This fosters a culture of dependency. The state would help the poor more by offering them less help.

Center-left economists like Prof. Paul Krugman agree incentives matter. However, they emphasize people feel trapped in poverty, mainly because of a lack of resources. When you save only a little money and live hand-to-mouth, how do you get an education? Or start a business or move to a city where jobs are available? You cannot focus on self-improvement when you constantly stress over the next rent-check or payment of medical bills. Hence, the answer to poverty is to provide more resources. It improves the lives of the poor in the short run and increases their chances of breaking free of the poverty cycle. Krugman says that evidence supports the ‘more resources view’ against the ‘incentives view’.

There are yet other progressive ideas from way back in the 1960s. The great liberal economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, argued in 1966 for a universal minimum income that would create a uniform, universal floor below which no one could fall. Beyond this, we should allow those with the will to work to supplement this basic income with the fruits of their labor. By doing this, we give income to the needy, and we do not take away that income if the recipient gets even the poorest job. When we give money to all citizens irrespective of a means-test, bureaucratic interventions suddenly vanish. There is no need to monitor anything because people can spend their income any way they want. There is no need for surveillance or to keep record. Citizens do not need to go to courts demanding the reinstatement of benefits, nor does the state need to work hard to deny benefits. Such a system would pay for itself. A thousand economists petitioned Congress to consider the idea in 1968. President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Income Maintenance Programs offered additional support for the proposal. The Commission proposed to replace the existing welfare system with a “basic income support program”. It radically concluded that we should not put in the hands of a Government agency the power of determining whether an individual should work. Instead, the Commission left it to individual choices and market incentives. It was a courageous idea that significantly curbed the power of the state to dictate the terms of welfare relief. Unfortunately, President Nixon, while pretending to embrace the idea, did enough to make it look like ‘the worst of both worlds’. It died in Congress.

Author Eubanks does not slam automation as inherently problematic. She says it is the value-system behind automation that needs looking into. Let us start from a value orientation that wants everyone to get all the resources they’re eligible for. If we couple it with a minimum of disruption and without denying the poor’s rights—then we can get a humane automated system. A punitive value judgment and opaque decision-making in computerization have resulted in worse repercussions than previous non-digital mechanisms, such as nineteenth-century poorhouses. She says in colorful language that automation is neither like the boot heel of Darth Vader nor like the magic spaceship that will save us all. If we do not design and implement technology with equity in mind, there will be unintended consequences.

Living and working in Silicon Valley, CA, I am well aware of the worship of technology. Silicon Valley thinks technology is the cure-all to solve our problems. If anyone questions it, the answer is to look at Uber, Kayak, Airbnb, and Booking.com. ‘See how they revolutionized transportation and accommodation booking’ is the answer. The implication is technology can do wonders with social services too. But technology is not value-neutral. There are plenty of examples where organizations use Artificial Intelligence technology with dubious outcomes. Testing teachers’ quality in Washington DC, computing probabilities of recidivism among prisoners, ranking of colleges, getting a job, quantifying creditworthiness, and getting insurance cover are all subjected to big data analysis. Activists have accused them of entrenching existing prejudices and biases based on race, ethnicity, and class.

The book is a slow-paced read. But it makes important observations on welfare distribution for the poor, poverty, and inequality.
Profile Image for Zella Kate.
288 reviews21 followers
April 27, 2018
Wanted to like this book more than I did. The arguments Eubanks makes are solid, and the best part of the book are her profiles of high-tech social programs gone awry, whether they are the social services system in Indiana, housing for the homeless programs in Los Angeles, or child abuse prediction systems in Pittsburgh. These profiles reminded me of long-form journalism, the type of in-depth reporting you see in better-quality magazines. They were well-written and included powerful anecdotes and observations.

But the introduction and the conclusion, which Eubanks devotes to advancing her own arguments about a new "digitial poorhouse," while compelling, are really boring. These sections take perfectly reasonable insights and arguments and just repeat them repeatedly in a repetitious way that I found really redundant. The result becomes tedious in the extreme. I actually read most of this book about a month ago but only finished it this week because I was bogged down in the conclusion and had a hard time mustering the urge to finish. That's a shame because Eubanks' subject is an important and timely one.
Profile Image for Paz.
56 reviews9 followers
February 12, 2021
This book is one of the most interesting texts on AI and it’s social effects. Really appreciate the stories of affected people, many times ignored, mostly related to poor people. However, it baffled me that the author -although this text is about inequality- doesn’t dedicate a single chapter to analyze the means of production of digital technologies and the role it plays as an ideology means. Like almost all authors from the US who work on the matter, there is a worrying lack of economic analysis; even words as capitalism and neoliberalism are impossible to find. So, again, as in all liberal studies, the author ends up with “principles” on technologies, avoiding any economic structural analysis.
Profile Image for Frederic Bush.
26 reviews
March 19, 2018
I wanted to like this book, but the author is not trustworthy -- claims without evidence that she was secretly investigated for insurance fraud, moves beyond the evidence on two of her case studies. While she does marshal evidence that automated welfare changes in Indiana were bungled to ruinous effect, for her other case studies she does not compare the effectiveness of algorithms with the effectiveness of people, and instead unfairly points out the faults of algorithms without pointing out the faults of humans.
47 reviews1 follower
April 20, 2018
A terrifying view into a dystopian future that we're blindly walking into.
Profile Image for Pallavi.
43 reviews
December 27, 2020
A solid book that outlines America's history of waging war against the poor in order to maintain the status quo. The author goes through several examples of how algorithms some (especially tech-oriented people) would expect to solve inequality and improve America's welfare system actually continues our country's effort to police poor people. I especially enjoyed how the author detailed our nation's history with welfare and how we got to the point we're at.

I rated this 4 stars because I wanted to hear more technical details about the systems designed. Unfortunately, there were parts that felt a bit glossed over or would have been more powerful with a deeper dive.

The last 2 chapters were the most powerful in the book and detailed what we can do to combat the digital poorhouse. It once again emphasized how this isn't a new struggle - it's something our nation has been struggling with for a long time. Overall, a good book to give an overview about how technology isn't the cure all for all problems - it's much more complex than that.
Profile Image for Kitty.
49 reviews
November 9, 2020
I think if you’re new (like me) to understanding how technology impacts public assistance this is a great place to start! It was redundant at times and slipped into the arena of virtue signaling, particularly in its conclusion, but overall I think it’s an important introduction to a subject that we are all complicit in and subjected to ultimately.
Profile Image for Janet.
2,039 reviews19 followers
December 2, 2022
Eye opening but not surprising at all. The vulnerable in this country are always at risk for more vulnerability and knock-downs. My hometown was profiled in the Allegheny Algorithm chapter. Appreciated learning about the legit/for real poorhouse. My mother always used to say "You're going to send me to the poorhouse," and I thought it was just the turn of a phrase. Nope; it was a real live institution that inspired terror among poor and working-class people. Now the poverty punishments come from what the author has termed the digital poorhouse--automated systems controlling who gets what when.
Profile Image for David Wood.
12 reviews
March 27, 2023
The book has three deep profiles of high tech oppression: an automated decision making system for welfare recipients, a centralized database for unhoused people, and algorithms to predict social services needs. Virginia Eubanks provides sometimes helpful but often extensive context for each case to show the development of policies, ways of thinking, and infrastructure that contributed to the creation of novel tools to address poverty.

While at times a bit of a slog, the book is a necessary examination of the inevitable failures of over-engineering digital solutions, importance of policy makers to focus on the needs of people/users, and core societal values that must not be forgotten to create truly inclusive communities that all people can grow and thrive within.

526 reviews132 followers
March 10, 2018
An excellent dissection of the largely unheralded construction of a “digital poorhouse” in the United States: the systematic collection and classification of data about the poor as a means to manage (and reduce the numbers of) people demanding social assistance. This data is then weaponized against the people who are being surveilled: Although sometimes framed as a way of ensuring more targeted delivery of benefits, Eubanks shows convincingly that the real purposes are about exercising social control over the poor, about furthering the stigma of poverty’s as to “incentivize” people to get off the dole, and ultimately about segmenting the different categories of poverty and need so as to justify the progressive reduction of social expenditure on the poor.

The core of the book are three case studies: public assistance programs in Indiana, homeless services in Los Angeles, and child welfare in Allegheny county. What she finds is, “stunning. Across the country, poor and working-class people are targeted buy new tools of digital poverty management and face life-threatening consequences as a result. Automated eligibility systems discourage them from claiming public resources they need to survive and thrive. Complex integrated databases collect their most personal information, with few safeguards for privacy or data security, while offering almost nothing in return. Predictive models and algorithms tag them as risky investments and problematic parents. Vast complexes of social service, law-enforcement, and neighborhood surveillance make their every move visible and offer up their behavior for government, Commercial, and public scrutiny.” (11)

The similarities to China’s much-maligned Social Credit System are striking: the combination of personal information and predictive analytics are used to rate people’s proclivities to need social support. But the differences are also important: whereas in China, no one escapes the Orwellian gaze of the Social Credit System, in America these surveillance and monitoring tools are directed only at the poor and provide a technical way to automate the measurement and the enforcement of the ethically dubious line between the deserving and supposedly undeserving poor, including predictions about who may need what kinds of assistance — which, in a context of moral opprobrium of leveled at the poor, is akin to predicting sin. This not only increases the stigma of poverty, but perversely may make poverty even harder to escape, since, “Under the new regime of prediction, you are impacted not only by your own actions, but by the actions of your lovers, housemates, relatives, and neighbors. Prediction, unlike classification, is intergenerational: Angel and Patrick’s actions today may limit Harriet’s future, and her children’s future.” (182)

A strength of this book is its historical awareness that the latest digital techniques for governing the poor in fact build on a long history that reaches back to the earliest days of the Republic and even to the colonial era, when the building of poorhouses was meant to prevent the undeserving poor from becoming “dependent” paupers, living high off the hog of outdoor relief. Eugenics programs in the late 19th and early 20th century America were above all about control over the poor. (Interestingly, poorhouses were also the first racially integrated institutions in America: even before prisons.)

The “digital poorhouse” that began to be constructed in the 1970s was a reaction to the political contestation in the wake of Great Society poverty relief programs. The aim of these technologies was “to quietly defuse the conflict between the political victories of the welfare rights movement and the professional middle-class revolt against public assistance. To accomplish this goal, new high-tech tools had to be seen as embodying simple administrative upgrades, not consequential political decisions.” (197) In other words, these tools were quite precisely parallel to what Ferguson calls the “anti-politics machine” of that other great administrative engine of anti-poverty, namely development agencies.

Eubanks ultimate concludes that, “The very existence of a social safety net is premised on an agreement to share the social cost of uncertainty. Welfare states distribute the consequences of bad luck more equally across society’s members. They acknowledge that we, as a society, share collective responsibility for creating a system that produces winners and losers, inequity and opportunity. But the moral calculus of the digital poorhouse individualizes risk and shreds social commitment.” (199) As Tim O’Reilly remarks, this book offers “a terrible reminder of the power of the digital systems we build and the urgency of infusing them with the right moral values.”
Profile Image for Vinayak Hegde.
465 reviews55 followers
June 27, 2020
The book looks at how technology can have a dehumanizing effect on people, especially the poor. In our ruthless chase of efficiency, we have forgotten that the systems that we build can adversely affect people and trap them systematically in poverty. The central message of the book is how technology can just automate and entrench human bias into the system. And as computer systems and algorithms are seen as faultless and free of bias (because they are "neutral"), they can perpetuate the very cycle of oppression and inequality that they want to eradicate.

The book (rightly) questions technology as a force for good. It shows several examples where the lack of human touch and adequate redressal systems in case of system errors can have a deleterious effect on the people availing state benefits. I wanted to give a higher rating to this book but there is a lot of repetition of themes especially in the last third of the book that makes reading hard. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.

Some quotes that I liked from the book.

1. Models are opinions embedded in mathematics" - Cathy O'Neill

2. I find the philosophy that sees human beings as unknowable black boxes and machines as transparent deeply troubling. It seems to me a worldview that surrenders any attempt at empathy and forecloses the possibility of ethical development. The presumption that human decision-making is opaque and inaccessible is an admission that we have abandoned a social commitment to try to understand each other.

3. Mathematical models, by their very nature, are based on the past, and on the assumption that the patterns will repeat - Cathy O'Neil

4. Once we perfect the algorithms, a free market and free information will guarantee the best results for the greatest number. We won't need government at all.

5. Classifying and targetting marginalized groups for "special attention" might helpful personalization. But it also leads to persecution.
Profile Image for James Carter.
609 reviews7 followers
February 3, 2019
I'm not sure if the author realizes this, but poverty is everywhere and there will always be poor people!

Automating Inequality is an okay read about how data is collected for them, but to me, it's just a matter of organization. There's one case that wasn't so much how data collection ruined the homeless people of Los Angeles but rather how the demand for housing overwhelmed supply. The last two chapters felt like high school essays about the principles of Bills of Rights and justice for all...a real yawner.

All in all, like Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, Automating Inequality fails to make a cogent case about eliminating poverty because for people to get out of it is to make more money which comes from getting more education and learning new marketable skills (trust me, I was once poor and collected SSI, foodstamps and Medicaid benefits, so yes...I get it!).
70 reviews3 followers
April 26, 2018
Good reading in the case studies, which serve their purpose as (much needed) cautionary tales. But too repetitive in the analysis/conclusions portion, which is overwrought with logic errors and unexamined assumptions.

Two stars is Goodread's version of "average" (according to the hover text explaining each star), so don't let the rating dissuade you from reading it: the case studies are well worth your time to read and ponder.
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