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

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  1,812 ratings  ·  250 reviews
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 comparativ
Hardcover, 260 pages
Published January 23rd 2018 by St. Martin's Press
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 ·  1,812 ratings  ·  250 reviews

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Will Byrnes
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 15:7-1
Trevor (I no longer get notified of comments)
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
Mar 27, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
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.
John Devlin
Sep 14, 2020 rated it did not like it
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
Jun 17, 2018 rated it it was ok
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 pe ...more
I have never read anything more relevant to my career and work. brb, recommending to literally everyone
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
Jul 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: great
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, prospectiv ...more
David Wineberg
Jan 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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, neigh
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,
Alejandro Teruel
Jul 26, 2021 rated it really liked it
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-triv ...more
Roshni Sahoo
Dec 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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 fr
Willy Marz Thiessam
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 w
Carlos Castillo
May 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 14, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: priority-list
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. ...more
Jan 28, 2021 rated it really liked it
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, shel ...more
Jun 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Here is another sociological contribution to critical studies of the digital age. In this book, Eubanks uses three case studies of reconfiguration of social services to digital automation - what she dubs the "digital poorhouse" and their consequences. So, this book takes its place with Cathy O'Neill's Weapons of Math Destruction and David Lyon's framework of the surveillance society. In all three cases, digital systems serve as diversion (pushing people off social services), managing scarcity an ...more
Zella Kate
Apr 26, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, sociology
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 an ...more
Sep 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
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 analysi ...more
Frederic Bush
Mar 19, 2018 rated it it was ok
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 ...more
Andrei Barbu
Apr 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A terrifying view into a dystopian future that we're blindly walking into. ...more
Dec 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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 t
Kitty Schwartz
Nov 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
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.
Mar 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
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 co ...more
Vinayak Hegde
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 cyc ...more
James Carter
Feb 02, 2019 rated it liked it
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
L. Scott
Apr 25, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 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.
Feb 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Anyone who has ever claimed that technological development is linked to social progress must read this book. I was blown away.

I want to give a special mention to the “Oath of Non-Harm for an Age of Big Data”. Everyone working in government, technology, or really anywhere should have a copy of this sitting on their desk.
May 30, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2021
Virginia Eubanks was one of the commentators in the documentary "Coded Bias" on Netflix, about the use of technology, particular AI, in recognizing people. Eubanks' comments stood out to me and when I found that she had written this book, I knew I had to read it.

Eubanks presents her thoughts through the lens of the Poorhouse establishment and how we have just shifted gears, using technology as our guide and how technology impacts services from being personal to being controlled by a computer. Ho
Lance Eaton
The supposed quest to create more efficient systems within government programs through automation and algorithms--particularly those that focus on social welfare--is not so much a cost-saving, efficient, and effective approach to caring for society's most vulnerable but rather a means of making the process harder, more-complicated, and near-impossible to challenge for those who suffer from the many bugs (or features as the case may be) of the technologies being used. Starting first with a look a ...more
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Data Book Club: JULY Book: Automating Inequality 1 11 Jun 16, 2021 11:36PM  
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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. ...more

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33 likes · 2 comments
“We all live in the digital poorhouse. We have always lived in the world we built for the poor. We create a society that has no use for the disabled or the elderly, and then are cast aside when we are hurt or grow old. We measure human worth based only on the ability to earn a wage, and suffer in a world that undervalues care and community. We base our economy on exploiting the labor of racial and ethnic minorities, and watch lasting inequities snuff out human potential. We see the world as inevitably riven by bloody competition and are left unable to recognize the many ways we cooperate and lift each other up.

But only the poor lived in the common dorms of the county poorhouse. Only the poor were put under the diagnostic microscope of scientific clarity. Today, we all live among the digital traps we have laid for the destitute.”
“When automated decision-making tools are not built to explicitly dismantle structural inequities, their speed and scale intensify them.” 2 likes
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