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

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

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

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

by Virginia Eubanks


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WINNER: The 2019 Lillian Smith Book Award, 2018 McGannon Center Book Prize, and shortlisted for the Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice

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

Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body: "A must-read."

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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250215789
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 08/06/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 151,999
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Virginia Eubanks is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University at Albany, SUNY. She is the author of 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 lives in Troy, NY.

Read an Excerpt



"You're going to send me to the poorhouse!"

Most of us reference the poorhouse only reflexively today. But the poorhouse was once a very real and much feared institution. At their height, poorhouses appeared on postcards and in popular songs. Local societies scheduled tours for charity-minded citizens and common gawkers. Cities and towns across the country still include streets named for the poorhouses once sited on them. There are Poor Farm Roads in Bristol, Maine, and Natchez, Mississippi; County Home Roads in Marysville, Ohio, and Greenville, North Carolina; Poorhouse Roads in Winchester, Virginia, and San Mateo, California. Some have been renamed to obscure their past: Poor House Road in Virginia Beach is now called Prosperity Road.

The poorhouse in my hometown of Troy, New York, was built in 1821. While most of its residents were too ill, too old, or too young for physical labor, able-bodied inmates worked on a 152-acre farm and in a nearby stone quarry, earning the institution its name: the Rensselaer County House of Industry. John Van Ness Yates, charged by the state of New York with conducting a year-long inquiry into the "Relief and Settlement of the Poor" in 1824, used Troy's example to argue that the state should build a poorhouse in every county. His plan succeeded: within a decade, 55 county poorhouses had been erected in New York.

Despite optimistic predictions that poorhouses would furnish relief "with economy and humanity," the poorhouse was an institution that rightly inspired terror among poor and working-class people. In 1857, a legislative investigation found that the House of Industry confined the mentally ill to 41/2-by-7-feet cells for as long as six months at a time. Because they had only straw to sleep on and no sanitary facilities, a mixture of straw and urine froze onto their bodies in the winter "and was removed only by thawing it off," causing permanent disabilities.

"The general state of things described as existing at the Poor House, is bad, every way," wrote the Troy Daily Whig in February 1857. "The contract system, by which the maintenance of the paupers is let out to the lowest bidder, is in a very great measure responsible. ... The system itself is rotten through and through." The county superintendent of the poor, Justin E. Gregory, won the contract for the House of Industry by promising to care for its paupers for $1 each per week. As part of the contract, he was granted unlimited use of their labor. The poorhouse farm produced $2,000 in revenue that year, selling vegetables grown by starving inmates.

In 1879, the New York Times reported on its front page that a "Poorhouse Ring" was selling the bodies of deceased residents of the House of Industry to county physicians for dissection. In 1885, an investigation into mismanagement uncovered the theft of $20,000 from the Rensselaer County poor department, forcing the resignation of Keeper of the Poorhouse Ira B. Ford. In 1896, his replacement, Calvin B. Dunham, committed suicide after his own financial improprieties were discovered.

In 1905, the New York State Board of Charities opened an investigation that uncovered rampant sexual abuse at the House of Industry. Nurse Ruth Schillinger testified that a male medical attendant, William Wilmot, regularly attempted to rape female patients. Inmates insisted that Mary Murphy, suffering from paralysis, had been assaulted by Wilmot. "They heard footsteps in the hall and they said it was Wilmot down there again," Schillinger testified, "and I found the woman the next morning with her legs spread apart and she couldn't move them herself because they were paralyzed."

In his defense, John Kittell, the keeper of the House of Industry and Wilmot's boss, claimed that his management had saved the county "five to six thousand dollars per year" by reducing the cost of inmate care. Wilmot faced no charges; action to improve conditions was not taken until 1910. Troy's poorhouse remained open until 1954.

While poorhouses have been physically demolished, their legacy remains alive and well in the automated decision-making systems that encage and entrap today's poor. 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. 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.

This chapter chronicles how we got here: how the brick-and-mortar poorhouse morphed into its data-based descendants. Our national journey from the county poorhouse of the nineteenth century to the digital poorhouse today reveals a remarkably durable debate between those who wish to eliminate and alleviate poverty and those who blame, imprison, and punish the poor.

* * *

America's first poorhouse was built in Boston in 1662, but it wasn't until the 1820s that imprisoning the indigent in public institutions became the nation's primary method of regulating poverty. The impetus was the catastrophic economic depression of 1819. After a period of extravagant financial speculation following the War of 1812, the Second Bank of the United States nearly collapsed. Businesses failed, agricultural prices dropped, wages fell as much as 80 percent, and property values plummeted. Half a million Americans were out of work — about a quarter of the free adult male population. But political commentators worried less about the suffering of the poor than they did about the rise of "pauperism," or dependence on public benefits. Of particular concern was outdoor relief: food, fuel, medical care, clothing, and other basic necessities given to the poor outside of the confines of public institutions.

A number of states commissioned reports about the "pauper problem." In Massachusetts, Josiah Quincy III, scion of a wealthy and influential Unitarian family, was appointed to the task. Quincy genuinely wanted to alleviate suffering, but he believed that poverty was a result of bad personal habits, not economic shocks. He resolved the contradiction by suggesting that there were two classes of paupers. The impotent poor, he wrote in 1821, were "wholly incapable of work, through old age, infancy, sickness or corporeal debility," while the able poor were just shirking.

For Quincy, the pauper problem was caused by outdoor relief itself: aid was distributed without distinguishing between the impotent and the able. He suspected that indiscriminate giving destroyed the industry and thriftiness of the "labouring class of society" and created a permanently dependent class of paupers. His solution was to deny "all supply from public provision, except on condition of admission into the public institution [of the poorhouse]."

It was an argument that proved alluring for elites. At least 77 poorhouses were built in Ohio, 79 in Texas, and 61 in Virginia. By 1860, Massachusetts had 219 poorhouses, one for every 5,600 residents, and Josiah Quincy was enjoying his retirement after a long and rewarding career in politics.

From the beginning, the poorhouse served irreconcilable purposes that led to terrible suffering and spiraling costs. On the one hand, the poorhouse was a semi-voluntary institution providing care for the elderly, the frail, the sick, the disabled, orphans, and the mentally ill. On the other, its harsh conditions were meant to discourage the working poor from seeking aid. The mandate to deter the poor drastically undercut the institution's ability to provide care.

Inmates were required to swear a pauper's oath stripping them of whatever basic civil rights they enjoyed (if they were white and male). Inmates could not vote, marry, or hold office. Families were separated because reformers of the time believed that poor children could be redeemed through contact with wealthy families. Children were taken from their parents and bound out as apprentices or domestics, or sent away on orphan trains as free labor for pioneer farms.

Poorhouses provided a multitude of opportunities for personal profit for those who ran them. Part of the keeper of the poorhouse's pay was provided by unlimited use of the grounds and the labor of inmates. Many of the institution's daily operations could thus be turned into side businesses: the keeper could force poorhouse residents to grow extra food for sale, take in extra laundry and mending for profit, or hire inmates out as domestics or farm-workers.

While some poorhouses were relatively benign, the majority were overcrowded, ill-ventilated, filthy, insufferably hot in the summer and deathly cold in the winter. Health care and sanitation were inadequate and inmates lacked basic provisions like water, bedding, and clothing.

Though administrators often cut corners to save money, poorhouses also proved costly. The efficiencies of scale promised by poorhouse proponents required an able-bodied workforce, but the mandate to deter the able poor virtually guaranteed that most inmates were unable to work. By 1856 about a quarter of poorhouse residents in New York were children. Another quarter were mentally ill, blind, deaf, or developmentally delayed. Most of the rest were elderly, ill, physically disabled, or poor mothers recovering from childbirth.

Despite their horrid conditions, poorhouses — largely through their failings — succeeded in offering internees a sense of community. Inmates worked together, endured neglect and abuse, nursed the sick, watched each other's children, ate together, and slept in crowded common rooms. Many used the poorhouse cyclically, relying on them between growing seasons or during labor market downturns.

Poorhouses were among the nation's first integrated public institutions. In his 1899 book, The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. Du Bois reported that African Americans were overrepresented in the city's poorhouses because they were refused outdoor relief by exclusively white overseers of the poor. Residents described as Black, Negro, colored, mulatto, Chinese, and Mexican are common in poorhouse logbooks from Connecticut to California. The racial and ethnic integration of the poorhouse was a sore spot for white, native-born elites. As historian Michael Katz reports, "In 1855, a New York critic complained that the 'poor of all classes and colors, all ages and habits, partake of a common fare, a common table, and a common dormitory.'"

Poorhouses were neither debtors' prisons nor slavery. Those arrested for vagrancy, drunkenness, illicit sex, or begging could be forcibly confined in them. But for many, entry was technically voluntary. The poorhouse was a home of last resort for children whose families could not afford to keep them, travelers who fell on hard times, the aged and friendless, deserted and widowed, single mothers, the ill and the handicapped, freed slaves, immigrants, and others living on the margins of the economy. Though most poorhouse stays lasted less than a month, elderly and disabled inmates often stayed for decades. Death rates at some institutions neared 30 percent annually.

Poorhouse proponents reasoned that the institution could provide care while instilling moral values of thrift and industry. The reality was that the poorhouse was an institution for producing fear, even for hastening death. As social work historian Walter Trattner has written, elite Americans of the time "believed that poverty could, and should, be obliterated — in part, by allowing the poor to perish." Nineteenth-century social philosopher Nathanial Ware wrote, for example, "Humanity aside, it would be to the best interest of society to kill all such drones."

* * *

Despite their cruelty and high cost, county poorhouses were the nation's primary mode of poverty management until they were overwhelmed by the Panic of 1873. A postwar economic boom collapsed under the weight of Gilded Age corruption. Rampant speculation led to a run of bank failures, and financial panic resulted in another catastrophic depression. Rail construction fell by a third, nearly half of the industrial furnaces in the country closed, and hundreds of thousands of laborers were thrown out of work. Wages dropped, real estate markets tumbled, and foreclosures and evictions followed. Local governments and ordinary individuals responded by creating soup kitchens, establishing free lodging houses, and distributing cash, food, clothing, and coal.

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began when workers for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad learned that their wages would be cut yet again — to half their 1873 levels — while the railroad's shareholders took home a 10 percent dividend. Railroad workers stepped off their trains, decoupled engines, and refused to let freight traffic through their yards. As historian Michael Bellesiles recounts in 1877: America's Year of Living Violently, when police and militia were sent in with bayonets and Gatling guns to break the strikes, miners and canal workers rose up in support. Half a million workers — roustabouts and barge captains, miners and smelters, factory linemen and cannery workers — eventually walked off the job in the first national strike in US history.

Bellesiles reports that in Chicago the Czechs and the Irish, traditionally ethnic adversaries, cheered each other. In Martinsburg, West Virginia, white and Black railroad workers shut down the train yard together. The working families of Hornellsville, New York, soaped the rails of the Erie railroad track. As strikebreaking trains attempted to ascend a hill, they lost traction and slid back into town.

The depression also affected Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Britain. In response, European governments introduced the modern welfare state. But in America, middle-class commentators stoked fears of class warfare and a "great Communist wave." As they had following the 1819 Panic, white economic elites responded to the growing militancy of poor and working-class people by attacking welfare. They asked: How can legitimate need be tested in a communal lodging house? How can one enforce work and provide free soup at the same time? In response, a new kind of social reform — the scientific charity movement — began an all-out attack on public poor relief.

Scientific charity argued for more rigorous, data-driven methods to separate the deserving poor from the undeserving. In-depth investigation was a mechanism of moral classification and social control. Each poor family became a "case" to be solved; in its early years, the Charity Organization Society even used city police officers to investigate applications for relief. Casework was born.

Caseworkers assumed that the poor were not reliable witnesses. They confirmed their stories with police, neighbors, local shopkeepers, clergy, schoolteachers, nurses, and other aid societies. 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.

Scientific charity workers advised in-depth investigation of applications for relief because they believed that there was a hereditary division between deserving and undeserving poor whites. Providing aid to the unworthy poor would simply allow them to survive and reproduce their genetically inferior stock. For middle-class reformers of the period, like scientific social worker Frederic Almy, social diagnosis was necessary because "weeds should not have the same culture as flowers."

The movement's focus on heredity was influenced by the incredibly popular eugenics movement. The British strain of eugenics, originated by Sir Francis Galton, encouraged planned breeding of elites for their "noble qualities." But in America, eugenics practitioners quickly turned their attention to eliminating what they saw as negative characteristics of the poor: low intelligence, criminality, and unrestricted sexuality.

Eugenics created the first database of the poor. From a Carnegie Institution–funded laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, and state eugenics records offices stretching from Vermont to California, social scientists fanned out across the United States to gather information about poor people's sex lives, intelligence, habits, and behavior. They filled out lengthy questionnaires, took photographs, inked fingerprints, measured heads, counted children, plotted family trees, and filled logbooks with descriptions like "imbecile," "feeble-minded," "harlot," and "dependent."


Excerpted from "Automating Inequality"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Virginia Eubanks.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note
Introduction: Red Flags
1: From Poorhouse to Database
2: Automating Welfare in the Heartland
3: High-Tech Homelessness in the City of Angels
4: The Allegheny Algorithm
5: The Digital Poorhouse
Conclusion: Dismantling the Digital Poorhouse
Sources and Methods

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