Economics Society Technology

MIT: Algorithms Are Making American Inequality Worse

Don’t miss MIT Tech Review’s interview with political scientist Virginia Eubanks about her new book, Automating Inequality. Some highlights:


In Automating Inequality, author Virginia Eubanks argues that the poor are the testing ground for new technology that increases inequality. The book, out this week, starts with a history of American poorhouses, which dotted the landscape starting in the 1660s and were around into the 20th century. From there, Eubanks catalogues how the poor have been treated over the last hundred years, before coming to today’s system of social services that increasingly relies on algorithms.

At the same time, there was a backlash against the civil rights movement going on, and a recession. So these elected officials, bureaucrats, and administrators were in this position where the middle-class public was pushing back against the expansion of public assistance. But they could no longer use their go-to strategy of excluding people from the rolls for largely discriminatory reasons. That’s the moment that we see these technologies arrive. What you see is an incredibly rapid decline in the welfare rolls right after they’re integrated into the systems. And that collapse has continued basically until today.

So these systems are actually already at work, sort of invisibly, in many of the services that we interact with on a day-to-day basis, whether we are poor, working class or professional middle class, or economic elites. But they don’t affect us all equally. My partner and I were able to endure that experience because we had resources to help us get through that experience, and also because it only happened to us once. It wasn’t coming from every direction. It wasn’t an overwhelming force where we’re hearing it from child protective services, and also Medicaid, and also food stamps, and also the police.

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