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

By Virginia Eubanks

Privacy is not a thing, especially if you are poor. In Automating Inequality, Virginia Eubanks takes a microscope to three systems used by local governments to illustrate how big tech is playing a role in tracking and policing the poor. In doing so, she highlights cultural and political narratives that need to change. She doesn’t really offer solutions, but identifying the problem is half the battle.

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….51 percent of Americans will spend at least a year below the poverty line between the ages of 20 and 65. Two-thirds of them will access a means-tested public benefit: TANF, General Assistance, Supplemental Security Income, Housing Assistance, SNAP or Medicaid. And yet we pretend that poverty is a puzzling aberration that happens only to a tiny minority of pathological people.

Indiana

First, Eubanks shines the spotlight on Indiana. Indiana teamed up with IBM to automate granting and denying welfare benefits. Social workers used to be gatekeepers who helped people obtain benefits that were sorely needed. Now, they were gatekeepers simply to input information into IBM’s computer program. If the program red-flagged the individual for “failure to cooperate,” the person would be denied benefits. But what does “failure to cooperate” mean? Well, an individual failed to cooperate when she inadvertently failed to sign one of the hundreds of forms you have to fill out. Another individual failed to cooperate when the office she submitted her paperwork to lost it. Of course, this had wide-spread and horrible consequences, including depriving extremely sick individuals of medicaid. But at least political figures in Indiana looked like they were reducing the welfare rolls.

Skidrow

Second, Eubanks discusses Skidrow and the homelessness crisis currently exploding there. It is so difficult to obtain a bed in LA that people simply give up. Homeless people apply for benefits and end up in the system for seven years. They have no ability to opt out of being included in the system or to dictate with whom their data is shared. And sure, organizations have access to their data to possibly help these folks, but so do the police. The homeless population ends up more highly scrutinized simply because they are homeless.

Allegheny County

Third, Eubanks describes how Allegheny County, Pennsylvania approaches child welfare. This chapter was quite infuriating (as was it all). She discusses a system that assigns points to individuals and families when someone calls child protective services. Eubanks and her colleague attempted, as humans, to assess data and ascribe a risk factor number to a child. Eubanks was very wrong. She believed the child was at low risk of harm. The computer program thought the child was at critically high risk. This is due in part by the child’s family history. Regardless of whether a call of abuse or neglect is substantiated, it stays in the system as a future risk factor and follows the individual forever–and their kids–and their kids. This results in more invasive government probing and intervention and/or marking people for life as “child abusers” regardless of whether the allegation is substantiated.

Overall, I recommend this book. We should all know about each other’s plight. It gives us compassion and begins a conversation that may lead to solutions. There also is that great phrase, know thine enemy. I am grateful to Eubanks for shining the spotlight.

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