Skip to content
CityLab
Justice

The Rise of 'Digital Poorhouses'

Seemingly benign and even well-meaning high-tech tools are evolving the ways in which government criminalizes and punishes the poor.
Homeless people sleep in tents in the Skid Row area of downtown L.A., where Eubanks conducted her research on the coordinated entry system—framed as the Match.com of homeless services.
Homeless people sleep in tents in the Skid Row area of downtown L.A., where Eubanks conducted her research on the coordinated entry system—framed as the Match.com of homeless services.Jae C. Hong/AP

Fifty years ago in March, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., at what turned out to be his last Sunday sermon. He talked about the perils and promises of the three major changes he saw taking place around the world—a “triple revolution,” as he called it, consisting of automation, the emergence of nuclear weaponry, and the global fight for human rights. Regarding that first prong, he noted at the time:

It’s this speech that Virginia Eubanks, an associate professor of political science at the University at Albany, SUNY, comes back to at the end of her new book Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. In it, Eubanks takes a hard look at some of the seemingly agnostic—and even well-meaning technologies—that promise to make the U.S. welfare apparatus well-oiled and efficient. Automated systems that gauge eligibility for Medicaid and food stamps, databases that match homeless folks to resources, statistical tools that detect cases of child abuse are all considered game-changers for welfare institutions. But Eubanks demystifies these complex-sounding technologies, detailing the ways they can compromise the human rights and dignity of the very people they claim to help. King’s vision on this front, as with many others, is yet to be realized, she argues.