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

10 thoughts on “Digital Warfare on The Impoverished

Add yours

  1. Thank you very much. It is a clear explanation of how digital info works against people when people draw wrong conclusions by using the wrong kinds of questions, sort of like a push poll.

    1. Melody,

      You make an important point. In the same way that a “push poll” produces only acceptable answers tor the sponsor, the stories told about the poor are similarly self-fulfilling, and can only devastate the poor and congratulate the economic sagacity of the folks in power.


  2. Thank you for writing this Will. I really apppreciate your “Morality & Citizenship” section and your “Conclusion.” The last three paragraphs of your essay are my new manifesto for the future.

    1. Dear Outsect Originator,

      Thank you so much for your comment. When I reread the last three paragraphs of the essay through your eyes I appreciated them anew, and decided to tack them by my desk for continuing inspiration, in the same fashion as you. Thank you so much for deepening my insight! Isn’t thinking, reading, imagining, and self-discovery marvelous?


  3. Will. well said as always. The war against the poor is disgusting and, I agree, immoral. But it is not new. Resources have been taken from the poor and used for political purposes for as long as you and I have been working to secure those resources for the poor. So, what have you and I been doing wrong? You will recall Herbert Spencer’s notion of evolution that resources should not be provided to folks who are unable to secure them on their own, because they will perpetuate the problem by birthing a next generation who will just need more resources “from government”. I don’t think many politicians would publicly take that position now but many probably do believe it. Has it been tested? Do we know what happens when governments give resources to poor people? Is it a practical issue as well as a moral issue? Jim

    1. Jim,

      When I was at Brown University in 1961, I learned that Herbert Spencer was required reading for all undergraduates when Lester Ward, a well know Social Darwinist himself, was President early in the 20th century. It took the Great Depression to “disprove” Spencer and kill enthusiasm for Social Darwinism. As you say, though, the underlying premise hasn’t gone away. It seems the lessons of the Great Depression have been forgotten. Thanks for your comment.


  4. Dear Will:

    Upon reading your Digital Warfare piece, I gnashed my teeth and restored my sometimes discouraged heart as I rose up in both frustration and hope.

    My personal world includes a mentally ill person who consistently comes up
    against a system filled with people, structures and rules that consistently work against his ability to thrive, by demeaning his sense of equality, worthiness, creativity and usefulness.

    Several of the ‘support’ measures used by the system are surreptitiously slick. For example, they provide: financial help (but not quite enough to actually get through each month), and medical help (often the wait to get needed attention is so extended that the original problem exacerbates, becoming more complex and more difficult to treat).

    The choreography of the System’s support dance has such confusing steps and outcomes that the client, often, feels depressed, humiliated and undeserving of services offered. Even while they are challenged by a chronic illness, and living at or below poverty there is embarrassment at having to accept any help at all, thanks to the quick but often faulty and disparaging judgement by those who have little to no pertinent information with which to cast such aspersions.

    Your article reminded me of a situation I was in, years ago, when I had a part time job as a grocery store cashier that offered work with ‘mother’s hours.’

    On one busy afternoon at the store, several several customers were in line with grocery carts at the cash register. A young mother, with small children in tow , loaded her items on the conveyer belt. Among the necessities like bread, peanut butter, and jelly, a prettily decorated, ready made birthday cake from the Deli was deposited on the counter too. From the chatter between the mother and her children it was clear that a little birthday party would be had later in the day.

    When it came time for payment the woman presented food stamp coupons to secure her purchase.

  5. (Please read on from my previous post, which was ‘sent’ as a reply by mistake, before I’d finished writing.)

    As I was saying, the customer buying the birthday cake paid with food stamp coupons.

    I finished bagging her groceries, conversing a bit with her about the birthday party they were going to have, and bid she and the children a good day.

    The next person in line put her groceries on the conveyer belt, scowling, and clearly upset about something. Within seconds, she began to squawk about the preceding customer, saying that she ought not to have bought a ready made birthday cake, because a box cake was cheaper, and no wonder people on food stamps were costing the State so much, seeing how wasteful they were, and how luxuriously they wanted to live.

    Without hesitation I said: “Perhaps she doesn’t have a kitchen with a working oven in it, or maybe her electricity is not yet connected, or she isn’t yet able to read a recipe in English? Neither of us knows her circumstances, Besides, there is no crime to have a special cake for a birthday party. No crime at all.”

    The customer looked both surprised and aggravated at my unexpected response to her judgmental comment. In fact, I thought maybe she’d complain about me to the supervisor, and I’d lose my job. And, quite frankly, I felt perfectly all right about that, should it come to pass.

    I didn’t get into trouble for speaking up in someone’s behalf, but I never forgot how easy it was for people to jump to conclusions about who deserves ‘what,’ ‘when’ they deserve it and ‘why’ they ought to
    be entitled to the ordinary day to day options that the many of us believe we rightfully entitled to.

    It’s not unlike the thinking that some folks have about the penal system, that we are paying for too many jails; they are like country clubs. Let’s not treat people as though they have any ‘promise’ in them. Let’s just remind them over and over how undeserving they are of anything they’re getting. God forbid we give anyone the idea that their life is worth the same as anyone else’s; that sort of thinking might cause some citizens to reconsider their political affiliations, to rebuke and/or abandon the Republican Party.

    Will, I know this isn’t very cohesive, but I’m recently home from surgery, and writing on a tiny little cell phone keyboard. Apologies for sailing around on your theme of poverty in our place and time. So, I’ll anchor my boat for now, and send love and good wishes to you and Bev.

    X MoMo

    1. Sherrie,

      You show here with clarity the tragic devastation of lives caused by cultural stereotypes employed to humiliate people in need. We do this to people year after year as if their miseries are self-generated, and have nothing to do with us. Your checkout counter example presents the choice starkly: do I share humanity by celebrating a birthday or do I fashion myself a victim. The later choice diminishes me more than it counts against the target of my mean spiritedness.

      Thanks so much for your comprehensive analysis and deeply felt thoughts.


  6. Enjoyed reading “Digital Warfare on the Impoverished” – thanks for your research and wisdom.
    Greed represents a lack of knowledge. Thanks again for taking the time to educate.
    Hope to see you this summer in Maine, Ronn Perry

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