Digital Warfare on The Impoverished

Harpers Magazine included an excerpt in its January 2018 issue from Virginia Eubanks’ book Automating Inequality, just published by St. Martin’s Press. According to Eubanks, government officials, using sophisticated computer technology, are now able to routinely ensnare poor people in the digital equivalent of the poorhouse of yore by tracking them down, monitoring them, stereotyping them, and enforcing dubious actions against them.

We know that the Republican Party under Donald Trump is engaged in an broad assault on welfare and entitlement programs. They aim to dismantle Obamacare, add work requirements and term limits to Medicaid, convert welfare programs to work programs, and defund everything else.

Take the Food Stamps Program, a perennial target, as a recent example. A Washington Post story reports:

“. . . the Trump budget proposal would gut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, by $17.2 billion in 2019—equivalent to 22 percent of the program’s total cost last year—and implement a boxed food delivery program, a system that White House budget director Mick Mulvaney compared to Blue Apron.” (Tracy Jan, Caitlin Dewey and Jeff Stein, “Trump’s Budget Hits Poor Americans the Hardest; Aims to Replace Food Stamps with High-end Meal Kits,” Washington Post, February 12, 2018.)

A second recent story, this one in the New York Times on Governor Bevin’s enthusiasm for adding work requirements to Medicaid in his state of Kentucky, reports:

“The Bevin administration has estimated that the plan will result in 100,000 fewer Medicaid recipients after five years and save $2.4 billion, mostly in federal Medicaid funds. But Mr. Bevin couched the policy change as a moral rather than a fiscal decision, saying he did not care about the savings and saw it as an opportunity for Kentucky’s poor “not to be put into a dead-end entitlement trap but rather to be given a path forward and upward so they can do for themselves.” (Abby Goodnough, “To Get Medicaid in Kentucky, Many Will Have to Work. Advocates for the Poor Say They Will Sue,” New York Times, January 12, 2018)

Eubanks helps us see that the Republicans and the their financial backers are winning their war, that the poor are losing, that Government officials are doing the dirty work, that institutionalization of income inequality is one result, and that advanced computer systems and data analytics are the magic genii, or culprits, depending on one’s point of view.

Eubanks takes her prime example from the State of Maine.

“In 2014, under Republican governor Paul LePage, the state attacked families who were receiving cash benefits through the federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF benefits are loaded on to EBT cards, which leave a digital record of where and when cash is withdrawn. Lepage’s administration mined data collected by federal and state agencies to compile a list of 3650 transactions in which TANF recipients withdrew cash from ATMs in smoke shops, liquor stores, and out-of-state locations. The data was released to the public.

The transactions that were flagged as suspicious represented only 0.3 percent of the 1.1 million cash withdrawals during that time period, and showed only where cash was withdrawn, not how it was spent. But the administration disclosed the data to suggest that TANF families were defrauding taxpayers by buying liquor, cigarettes, and lottery tickets.

The Maine legislature introduced a bill that would require TANF families to retain all receipts for twelve months in order to facilitate state audits of their spending. Democratic legislators urged the state’s attorney general to use LePage’s list to investigate and prosecute fraud. The governor introduced a bill to ban TANF recipients from using their benefit cards at out of state ATMs. These proposed laws were patently unconstitutional and unenforceable, and would have been impossible to obey—but that was not the point. Such legislation is part of the performative politics governing poverty. It is not intended to work; it is intended to heap stigma on social programs and reinforce the misleading narrative that those who access public assistance are criminal, lazy, spendthrift addicts.” (Virginia Eubanks, “The Digital Poorhouse, Harpers’s Magazine, January, 2018, pp. 11-13.)

Of course Governor LePage and his Commissioner wouldn’t agree. For fairness, as well as to highlight the moral enthusiasm Maine officials share with Governor Bevin of Kentucky, here are Mary Mahew’s words on TANF reform. Mary Mahew, Commissioner of Health and Human Services at the time, now a Republican candidate to succeed Paul LePage as Governor next January, and a competent data analytics manager, described “reform” this way in 2015.

“A new collaboration among the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine Department of Labor and the Maine Department of Education has resulted in 2,079 TANF recipients receiving vocational assessments in the past year, and 856 of them being placed in work or internship opportunities. We are supporting a pathway to employment, not a sentence to a lifetime of poverty.

The changes we are implementing at DHHS are not only designed to curb the waste and abuse of taxpayer benefits, but also to transition our programs from being a way of life for generations of Mainers to a temporary hand up coupled with an expectation of hard work and eventual employment and financial independence.” (Mary Mahew, “Commentary: Common Sense Welfare Reforms are Taking Place in Maine,” Portland Telegram, May 17, 2015)


Advances in computerized management systems are resulting in ever more precise control in all areas of human services: health, mental health, addiction, police, poverty, hunger, corrections, work programs, rehabilitation, children and family services, and education. In this instance, a collectivity of TANF recipients has been caught by data analytics professionals and subjected to involuntary measures by governmental officials.

As we know from daily news reports, immigrants are being successfully surveilled and micro-managed by similar technologies, leading to a plethora of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and mandated deportments across the country.

Political leaders, public agencies, and the people who advocate, initiate, and administer such systems, claim dubious liberties: to speak about their clientele, to generalize about them, to attribute histories to them, to tell stories about them, to speak without their input or consent, and to mandate changes in their conduct—while claiming all the while that such control is for “their own good.” These impositions affect the lives and prospects of people in dramatic and humiliating ways.

Public managers could, if they chose, refuse to speak for their charges, allowing them to speak for themselves. The same sophisticated technologies that permit managers precise knowledge of service status events could be used to engage the service recipients as valued participants in the program assessment and improvement process. There is no need to dictate to and humiliate recipients. Demonizing the poor is a political choice made by the Republican Party.

In carrying out their decision, the Governor and Commissioner select and impose deeply negative cultural stereotypes upon their charges. Then, with legislative sanction, they take unilateral actions that, for all they know, are counter-productive and don’t work. An income maintenance program is thereby turned into a work program. The ability to do that from the the state capitol is what makes the program a digital equivalent of the poorhouse of a bygone era.

Eubanks’ conclusion is fair: “Such legislation is part of the performative politics governing poverty. It is not intended to work; it is intended to heap stigma on social programs and reinforce the misleading narrative that those who access public assistance are criminal, lazy, spendthrift addicts.”

Morality and Citizenship

We live in a nation of 325 million people on a planet of 7,590 billion. All but a minuscule few are unknown to us, complete strangers. Most people we meet are passersby. We can neither know nor say much about them. Nothing we say is certain and indisputable. We are forced to make judgments on the basis of hunches, impressions, and clues.

In this context each citizen has a choice in addressing mass travail and misery. One can either assume that the needy person is a person like oneself, a compatriot worthy of respect, courtesy, and civility, or, one can impose ones limited knowledge and gross cultural assumptions upon the needful person without their participation or consent, and proceed accordingly.

As we’ve observed, the Republican party’s war on welfare recipients is based on the second choice. They use computer systems to control the client’s conduct without using them to know and involve the client as a valued citizen. Gross stereotypes guide the thought process and action agenda. The results are devastating.

They are first devastating on the poor themselves. The people receiving assistance are grouped together, depersonalized, and hidden; social inequality is promulgated; class prerogatives are asserted over them; and moral superiority is announced. At its most callous, the generic taxpayer is converted by political alchemy into the symbolic victim while the needy person, the service recipient, is converted into a worthless miscreant who brought poverty down on his own head all by himself.

A second devastating cost is both economic and spiritual. A society already burdened by wage stagnation and massive income inequality is further stratified and ossified by prejudice, dishonesty, and intellectual cowardice. Tax relief is claimed to be more important for “job creators” than safety net programs are for the desperately needy.

A third devastating cost is political. Republican Party politicians allow themselves to claim total certainty for their views and policies while refusing to converse and negotiate with other parties. Gridlock results. The politician comes across as cocksure, calculating, mean, and spiteful. Unwarranted arrogance and certainty asserts dominion over reality and truth.

Politics thereby turns into a soap opera, a bad morality play. Shaming the poor, with all the negativity that entails, infuses “performative politics.” Notice what low regard Governor Bevin holds the sick and the poor in his state’s Medicaid program, which is supposed to be a health insurance program, not a work program. Notice too the high regard in which the Governor holds himself.

Notice the close fit between Bevin’s moral vision and Commissioner Mahew’s ideal for Maine’s TANF program: “We are supporting a pathway to employment, not a sentence to a lifetime of poverty.” We are transitioning from “a way of life for generations of Mainers to a temporary hand up coupled with an expectation of hard work and eventual employment and financial independence.“

In taking this stance Republican politicians reprise the missionary worthies of an earlier epoch who claimed powers to redeem casualties spit out by the machinery of the industrial revolution. Here again capitalism and missionary zeal march together under the banner of enlightened public service. Callous platitudes protect the speakers from recognizing their own possible complicity in the sorrows of others. Victims are blamed, and then saved, by doing the required penance. The result: moral lessons delivered with box lunches to phantoms of missionary imagination.


Care for the needy and poor is considered a religious duty of every Christian, Muslim, and Jew.  It is the duty also of the humanist. The war against the poor is more than wrong; its disgusting and immoral. From that perspective, I very much appreciate Republican Governor John Kasich’s thoughts when he approved Medicaid expansion in Ohio as part of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. He explained that as a Roman Catholic he expected someday to be asked to account for his life, and that he couldn’t justify in his own mind denying medical care to poor people.

We are a modern, multi-ethnic nation, growing ever larger. The mystery of personal life increases with the size and complexity of the demographics. Free people deserve privacy and independence. We should stop pretending to know, or even wanting to know, what is going on in neighbors’ houses, bedrooms, kitchens, and minds. We should routinely provide high quality assistance programs to citizens because a sizable percentage of people, at any given point in time, need them. We should cease superintending people involuntarily into privileged schemes of human perfectibility.

We should treat strangers, our fellow citizens, as we would want to be treated. It is time to establish a durable, efficient human resource system under all our citizenry, lifelong. When we value others as we value ourselves, each with a right to participate and vote, the mathematics of insurance will provide the desired efficiencies and protections for the nation, as has happened in many other modern states. Health, education, and welfare are affordable when everyone is in the pool.

If we proceed in this honest and sensible way, faux certainty can be given up and political deadlock broken. We will instead approach our uncertain future together as citizen learners, guided by love of country, shared destiny, and mutual concern.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

March 14, 2018

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

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