December 11, 2013

Caseworkers vs. Computers

Caseworkers get a bad rap on both sides of the political spectrum.

On one hand, they are unpopular with people who receive public assistance. Recipients and welfare rights advocates accuse them of making judgments based on racial and class bias, treating clients like criminals, and acting as if public assistance dollars are coming out of their own pockets. On the other hand, conservative politicians and critics of social welfare programs suggest that they collude with clients to defraud taxpayers, are inefficient and incompetent, and provide poor customer service.

Part of the biggest bookeeping job in the world: Filing workers' applications for social security account numbers. This photo is in the public domain and is available This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Part of the biggest bookeeping job in the world: Filing workers’ applications for social security account numbers during the New Deal.
This photo is in the public domain and is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Automated eligibility systems –Washington’s ACES, Maryland’s CARES, Texas’ TIERS, Utah’s eRep, the multi-state Benefit Bank, among many others – have real potential to lower barriers to programs, coordinate services, and provide timely and accurate benefits information. In the best-case scenario, they also sidestep the judgment, stigma and routine invasions of privacy that characterize the client-caseworker relationship. Is automated eligibility the answer to some of welfare’s most persistent problems? Should we replace caseworkers with computers?

Indiana’s disastrous 1.4 billion dollar contract with IBM to modernize and privatize their eligibility system illustrates how the hazards of replacing casework with online applications and call centers may outweigh the benefits.

According to former Governor Mitch Daniels, the project was intended to improve access and services for needy, elderly and disabled people while saving taxpayers money by automating—and privatizing—back office work. Central to the plan was replacing face-to-face eligibility determinations performed by Indiana caseworkers with online application processes and call centers staffed by private employees.

Accusations of caseworker fraud, inefficiency, abuse, and “collusion” with clients were key to the Daniels administration’s argument for privatizing Indiana’s eligibility system. Daniels repeatedly called Indiana’s welfare system “broken, wasteful, and fraudulent,” the “worst in the country.” “The system is plagued by high error rates, fraud, wasted dollars, poor conditions for its employees, and very poor service to its clients,” he said in 2006, “We are going to improve all those things through a carefully planned transition [to] the IBM-led coalition.”

But problems with a system that promised more client control, fairer application processes, and more timely decisions were immediately evident. Less than a year after Indiana and IBM signed the contract, the recession, expanded federal eligibility for food stamps, and the 2008 Midwestern floods combined to more than double applications for help, overwhelming technical systems and personnel. Applications and supporting documents routinely went missing, or were damaged by fax transmission and scanning. Phone appointments scheduled to occur within two-hour blocks came hours, even days, late. If applicants were not waiting by the phone when these calls finally came through, they would be deemed “uncooperative” and denied benefits.

Private call center employees were inadequately trained to deal with the scale of human problems they encountered. Performance metrics designed to speed the decision-making process created perverse incentives. To clear backlogs, benefits were terminated for the catchall reason “failure to cooperate:” an applicant missing a phone appointment, failing to call in to a helpline on time, or hanging up after being on call waiting for 30 or 50 minutes.

More than 700,000 Indiana citizens were denied access to needed social services in the first three years of the project:

  • Sheila Purdue was denied Food Stamps and Medicaid when she was unable to complete a telephone interview. Purdue is deaf.
  • A nun’s case was closed for “failure to cooperate” because she did not call in to an interview on a day she was playing the church organ, after repeated attempts to reschedule.
  • An eighty-year-old woman from Terra Haute lost her Medicaid when she failed to call an eligibility hot line while hospitalized for congestive heart failure.

Call center workers were private employees, after all. If applicants felt they were unjustly denied and requested a Fair Hearing, Indiana was obliged to conduct and pay for the legal proceedings, not IBM. In fact, Indiana is now fighting several class action suits that claim that the state’s Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) violated federal Food Stamp law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the constitutional right to due process.

“Daniels’ theory was that caseworkers are not important,” Indiana State Representative Matt Pierce suggested in a recent telephone conversation, “But caseworkers try to understand the root causes of problems people are facing, and work with them to stabilize their lives. The Daniels administration just rejected that. Then, it was just an issue of mechanization or automation, and saving a lot of money by getting rid of caseworkers.”

The experiment failed. After just three years, and in the face of a legislative challenge – a Senate bill requiring there to be a state caseworker physically present in all township offices to assist the public in applying for assistance programs – the Daniels Administration broke its contract with IBM and introduced a “hybrid” system that includes both online applications and in-person eligibility determinations. IBM sued Indiana for breach of contract, and last year, the Marion County Court ruled in IBM’s favor. The cost to Indiana taxpayers? More than half a billion dollars.

Similar systems also failed in Florida and Texas in the early 2000s, but it would be a mistake to conclude that these states were the victims of bad design, poorly planned systems full of bugs. The problems with automating eligibility go well beyond technical glitches.

The push to automate intake processes requires computers to do tasks for which they are manifestly unsuited – evaluating the “deservingness” of human beings. In our current political climate, the public assistance system is fixated with gauging applicants’ moral fitness for government aid. Intake processes go far beyond identifying eligibility for programs and then crunching the numbers to determine benefit levels. It’s the conditionality of welfare in the United States – not lack of technical know-how – that makes eligibility automation such a debacle.

If we want to successfully modernize our public assistance programs in the United States, the solution is simple: Stop means-testing welfare programs. The Social Security Administration has successfully automated their eligibility and payment processes, and the system – based on calculating credits, not verifying income or work-readiness – is widely seen as both easy-to-use and efficient. Another solution may lie in unconditional cash transfers. The organization Give Directly connects donors with people in need in Kenya, delivering funds right to their cell phones. The organization’s overhead is less than 8%; 92.6% of money they raise goes directly to people who need it.

Ending hyper-surveillance in the welfare system might be a hard sell, but it is possible. In the meantime, let’s not ask computers to do something that us fallible humans can do so much better: supporting human growth, development, and dreams.

August 29, 2013

First lines, First Days


First lines often suck.

A bad first line introduces the subject, but don’t suggest the stakes of the game. A bad first line begins the story, but doesn’t engage your senses or rouse your interest. A bad first line is like a host who invites you into the house, and then turns off the lights.

The more I read as a writer of creative nonfiction, rather than as a scholar or academic, the more impressed I am with other authors’ technique. Reading for craft as well as content has made me aware of how many truly great writers there are out there, and how hard they work to produce writing that is both beautiful and compelling, both factually and emotionally true.

This week marks my first days back to teaching after a year-long sabbatical, so I’m thinking about what makes a good first. Here are a few:

My grandmother still keeps the hours of the whorehouse.

(Julianna Baggott, “Literary Murder”)

It was Christmas Eve 1926, the streets aglitter with snow and lights, when the man afraid of Santa Claus stumbled into the emergency room at New York City's Bellevue Hospital.

(Deborah Blum, “The Chemist’s War”)

Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears, and nostrils -- all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness.

(David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous)

The tyrant must steal sleep. He must vary the locations and times. He never sleeps in his palaces. He moves from secret bed to secret bed.

(Mark Bowden, “Tales of the Tyrant”)

What makes a good first line? It puts you in a scene, viscerally. A little bit of mystery is good. Funny works, but schmaltz rarely does. The first line of Alice Dreger’s compelling, sensitively written story, “Lavish Dwarf Entertainment” reads simply, “Dwarf walks into a bar.” A bit of naughty — social or sexual — hooks me, too.

Simplicity intrigues; but so do sustained rhetorical and technical flourishes, if they are well done. A beautiful phrase sticks in my head and makes me return, even if I’ve put down the book to make a sandwich or check the mail: Abram’s “the nourishment of otherness,” Bowden’s “secret bed to secret bed.”

Resonance with my own experience is idiosyncratic, unique to me, but crucial. Consider the first line to Rebecca Solnit’s “Insomnia”: “If only sleep could be hoarded, accumulated, and traded; if only you could store it up for a rainy day or borrow it from a friend or buy it on the street in little glassine bags.” I feel myself yearning for elusive sleep, willing to barter anything for just four hours…OK, three.

A great first line promises lush, delicious language; spareness and emotional transparency; or a salve for the struggles of being human. It is an invitation and a promise, a seduction and a covenant, a whisper and a handshake.

January 16, 2013

Cuomo Criminalizes the Mentally Ill

While I am encouraged by attempts to stem the tide of the epidemic of gun violence in America, and welcome a vigorous conversation about how to support and provide resources for people struggling with mental illness in this country, I am horrified to near-speechlessness by the mental health provisions of the recent gun control legislation passed in New York State.

andrew cuomo evil eyesSenate 2230/Assembly 2388, passed by the NYS Senate and Assembly and signed by Governor Cuomo on January 14th and 15th, includes a provision that requires mandatory reporting by health care professionals — including therapists, nurses, psychiatrists and social workers — of any person who reports thinking about harming themselves or others.

Additionally, implementing this act would require that these individuals be included in the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and that law enforcement be authorized to enter the homes of people reported by health care professionals to search for and confiscate weapons.

Read it for yourself:

9.46 Reports of substantial risk or threat of harm by mental health professionals.

The threat of being listed in the mental health equivalent of a sex offender registry and having your home invaded by police will clearly deter people from seeking appropriate care, will further victimize and stigmatize those who struggle with mental health issues, and is a hateful and deeply ignorant act of blatant discrimination.

The law does not give mental health professionals the option or the responsibility to report patients who they believe genuinely pose a threat to themselves or others; that ability and responsibility is already legally codified in inpatient treatment laws in all fifty states. Those laws require that mental health professionals get people who pose a threat to themselves or others in to care.

The new NYS law, instead, mandates that mental health providers report all individuals who think about harming themselves or others to law enforcement and the FBI. It is worth repeating: this is a mandatory reporting law that treats people struggling with mental illness as potential criminals, not as patients, citizens, or human beings.

S. 2230/A. 2388 is only possible in a country that believes that people struggling with routine mental health conditions are, in fact, inhuman and patently dangerous deviants who do not deserve human rights, respect, or empathy.

You can hear more about Cuomo’s worst idea yet on the website for the Brian Lehrer show. You can read a particularly compelling response from the mental health advocacy community — and support their efforts — at the website for the Mental Health Association in New York State.

January 8, 2013

Poverty & High-Tech Billionaires

This winter finds me wrapped in a scarf of Dr. Who-ish proportions and immersed in archival research for my next book, The Digital Poorhouse: Computers, Public Services and American Citizenship. This month, I am looking into the design and implementation of the Welfare Management System (WMS) in New York State in the 1970s and 80s. This system is still used to manage case files and calculate eligibility for a wide variety of public assistance programs — including Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), housing assistance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or Foodstamps), and many more — for hundreds of thousands of families in New York.

While digging through the files at the wonderful New York State Library and Archives, I came across a 1973 Village Voice article that claims governmental malfeasance in rewarding a contract to computerize welfare and Medicaid, and introduces a surprising to new player in this fascinating story: H. Ross Perot.

Image Credit: Allan Warren through Wikipedia Commons

H. Ross Perot photographed by Allan Warren

Mr. Perot is most famous for his third party, self-funded runs for the presidency of the United States in 1992 and 1996, on a platform that included eliminating the Federal deficit in five years, reducing the size of government, cutting government spending on the military and entitlement programs, and instituting electronic town halls. Turns out, through his companies Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and Perot Systems, he made a significant portion of his immense fortune–he is the 101st richest person in the United States, according to Fortune Magazine–by computerizing public assistance and government healthcare programs.

Here are some outtakes from Phil Tracy’s July 12, 1973 article about Perot’s dealings with then-New York Governer Nelson Rockefeller, “The Poverty Billionaire Comes Calling on Rocky:”

[There is a] scandal shaping up over the awarding of a $30 million welfare and Medicaid computer contract, the largest contract of its kind ever awarded by a state…Governor Rockefeller personally intervened on behalf of computer tycoon H. Ross Perot in order to keep him in contention for a contract to automate and administer the state’s $3.7 billion welfare and Medicaid operation. Originally, nine firms had submitted bids for a $40,000 contract to study current welfare and Medicaid payment systems around the state and propose an automated computerized model, which the companies would then run themslves. Five firms were selected, based on their presentations.  H. Ross Perot’s firm, Electronic Data Systems, was not one of the five….Perot immediately contacted the Governor, and on February 9 the Governor, Perot, and Social Services Commissioner Abe Lavine met together to discuss the matter. As a result of that meeting, Perot’s firm was reinstated in the bidding. The number of companies eventually awarded the $40,000 was cut from five to three and Perot’s firm was one of those selected.

Tracy’s article goes on to discuss some of the trouble that EDS, which had been cashing in on government contracts to automate the governments social assistance and medical programs since 1966, had already gotten into:

Ross Perot’s track record had got to be one of the muddiest around. For example, Perot’s $20 million annual contract with the State of California for running that state’s Medicare and Medi-Cal [systems] has been under investigation for the last two years…It has been charged that EDS at one point was running a 13 per cent error rate in its determination of reasonable charges…[In addition, a series of legislative hearings into federal health programs between 1970 and 1972 found]:

  • that in 1970, EDS cleared up a backlog of some 150,000 claims against the State of Iowa’s Medicare system simply by removing all of the computer safeguards and and approving all the claims…
  • that a 1970 HEW investigation [found] that EDS was inflating its workload for various Medicare contracts…resulting in over-charges…in excess of $1 million.
  • that a 1971 survey of nine states whose Medicare contracts were being processed by Electronic Data Services showed a consistent pattern of increased costs whenever EDS took over the operation…
  • that the same survey showed that cost dropped when the non-EDS firm’s computer programs were introduced…
  • that in June 1972 the Social Security Administration was forced to begin action to recover some $300,000 paid to Perot under EDS’s New York State Medicare contract for operating a computer that had yet to be installed…
  • that in several states EDS was earning excessive profits on its contracts sometimes going as high as 100 per cent.

Poverty Billionaire - Village Voice (1973)It amazes me how this 1973 tale so clearly anticipates stories ripped right from today’s headlines. Compare the EDS case to the struggle between the state of Indiana and IBM over the contract to computerize their welfare intake, for example. In 1973, EDS was accused of running an unacceptably high error rate, price gouging, and clearing cases in bulk without actually processing them. In 2010, the state of Indiana sued IBM for faileding to fulfill its $1.37 billion contract to privatize eligibility intake for food stamps, Medicaid and other welfare benefits by accusing them of…well…running an unacceptably high error rate, price gouging, and clearing cases in bulk without actually processing them.

The only major difference? In the 1970s, EDS cleared those Medicaid cases by indiscriminately approving them. In 2010, IBM did it by unjustly denying poor and working people life-saving assistance, both in individual cases and in bulk.

As reported by Mary Beth Schneider and Bill Ruthhart in the May 14, 2010 issue of the Indianapolis Star, one woman was cut off from Medicaid for missing her appointment with her caseworker — because she was hospitalized with terminal cancer. Welfare benefits were denied to a deaf deaf person — because she couldn’t do a phone interview. And Indiana charged in their lawsuit that when “IBM Coalition workers” — the call center employees who replaced Indiana’s frontline caseworkers — got behind in processing applications, “they would often recommend denial of an application to make their timeliness numbers look better, but then would tell the applicant to appeal the decision.”

We always hear about fraud in the welfare and Medicare/Medicaid systems, and low-income mothers face sanction, deprivation and jail sentences if they are caught fudging the numbers. So why has no one called H. Ross Perot and IBM CEO Virginia M. Rometty welfare cheats?

January 4, 2013

Other Things I Like About Detroit

On my most recent book tour, I spread out my readings so I would have a little extra time in each city to talk with social justice organizations, visit friends, and have some general fun. At each stop, I asked the locals I met, “If you moved away from [insert city name here], and you were back for only one day, what would you do?”

In Detroit, the answer was pretty unanimous: Belle Isle.

Belle Isle is a nearly-1,000 acre park in the middle of the Detroit River. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who was also responsible for Central Park in NYC. While Belle Isle Park is more than 100 acres larger, its annual budget is a mere $2.8 million — compared to Central Parks $43 million — for all physical upkeep and programs. Unfortunately this means that many of its wonderful resources are unavailable most of the week, or have closed for good: the aquarium, the zoo, the casino.

Following are some pictures of Belle Isle, and other things I like about Detroit.

Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory

The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, a greenhouse and botanical garden covering 13 acres. Designed by Detroit architect Albert Kahn, it opened in 1904 and is the nation’s oldest conservatory.


Cactus graffiti!

Nancy Brown Peace Carillon

The Nancy Brown Peace Carillon. In 1936—in the midst of the Depression that devastated and impoverished Detroit—Nancy Brown suggested that readers of her column, *Experience,* one of the US’ first personal advice columns, donate their nickels and dimes to build a Peace Carillon on Belle Isle. So many did so that this 850-foot Neo-Gothic tower was built less than 5 years later.


The abandoned Belle Isle Zoo. For more great pictures, see

Wild dog on Belle Isle. While staying in downtown Detroit, near the Woodbridge neighborhood, I went out to the corner store and saw pheasants. Who out there has written interesting stuff about Detroit rewilding? Anyone know?


More things (not on Belle Isle) I Like About Detroit:

The Milner Hotel: One of the few independent hotels left in Detroit’s downtown. Alas, I stayed there in the last week they were open. In October 2012, the hotel closed and is being converted into condos (boo). Opened in 1917 during Detroit’s boom years as part of a national chain, the Milner then advertised itself with the slogan, “A Bed and a Bath for a Buck and a Half.”
More on the closing here:


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October 28, 2012

In Praise of Disorientation

A few days ago, I started writing a post called “In praise of disorientation: Wherein our hero goes jogging in a strange city without a smartphone.” It was in response to some of my wanderings in Detroit this week, and my strange but persistent urge to try to do a book tour without digital communications technology of any kind: no cell phone, no GPS, no laptop.


Image Credit: Gus Chan, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 26, 2010


Friday, in Chicago, I went to grab a late lunch and couldn’t find a single place to set down my food in a cavernous Wicker Park coffee shop because every table had sprouted a laptop and a silent person with eyes glowing blue. Momentarily taken aback, I thought to myself that I don’t even remember a time when our community eateries didn’t echo with the clacking of keyboards.

Of course, I’m way too nervous a Nelly to actually try this epic midwest trip without aid of my electronic positioning and communications devices. But I still feel the strongest compulsion to throw all things that beep and blink out the window. It’s not some back-to-the-land impulse. It’s not simply my subtle Luddite leanings.

I miss being disoriented. I miss unplanned excursions. More importantly, I know that, as a human being, I have to force myself to ask people for help, especially strangers.

Then, yesterday, I picked up Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and she just crystallized so much of what I wanted to say in language far more elegant than my own. Try this:

The word “lost” comes fromthe Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know. Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant business, and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so (A Field Guide to Getting Lost, 2005: page 7).

What do we miss when we are always oriented, never lost?

October 26, 2012

Adventures in Digital Justice, Detroit Edition

I’m thrilled to be on the road touring the US Midwest behind Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age and talking to people about digital justice. One of the great things about being on book tour is that I get to spend my off time talking to people who are doing the hard work of creating high-tech equity in communities across the country.

Yesterday, I had the immense pleasure of talking with folks from the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition. The DDJC is a broad, diverse coalition of community-building, environmental justice, economic justice, arts, media, education and youth organizations with a focus on creating vibrant, healthy digital ecologies for Detroit and beyond.

Their work is based on the simple, revolutionary principle that communication is a fundamental human right, and that we need an alternative politics of technology that focuses on achieving technological justice, not just technology access.

I read DDJC’s Vision and Principles a few months ago, was blown away by the sophistication of their thinking and practice around digital justice, and immediately started talking about their work in my talks and lectures. In a world of technology organizing and policy that focuses only on access–i.e., the Digital Divide–and consumer privacy–i.e., ‘Net Neutrality–DDJC is building practices based on participatory design, common ownership, and healthy communities.

By not prioritizing access to IT as the blackbox solution to our community, social and political struggles, they’ve opened up ways to connect technology to the other social justice issues that impact our lives: environment, food and health; labor, economic inequality and community ownership; feminism, gender identity and reproductive justice; civil rights and immigrant justice.

They are probably best known for their DiscoTechs, or DISCovering TECHnology Fairs, community-building events that are simultaneously pop-up technology schools and grassroots leadership development opportunities. DiscoTechs don’t just teach technology, they help develop a shared set of principles, identify and strengthen existing community resources and networks, provide spaces to tell community stories, and challenge public policy that exploits and attacks poor and working communities and communities of color.

Here’s a video recap of their February 2012 DiscoTech at Mt. Elliot Makerspace. The video is by Patrick Geans-Ali and Imad Hassan.

But that’s not all that DDJC does. In fact, DiscoTechs are just a tiny piece of their work. They’re also involved in Detroit Future Media, which provides media training for the economic and community development of Detroit; Detroit Future Schools, which place visiting artists in classrooms across the city; and Detroit Future Youth, which supports youth social justice organizing.

Illustration of a mesh network from

And there’s still MORE! DDJC has recently been focusing on developing mesh networks, community-owned and powered wireless networks that center around routers on rooftops that act as hubs to facilitate the internet access of their neighbors. More importantly, they make neighborhood INTRAnets possible, which allow neighbors to share important documents and media among themselves. There’s a great description of this amazing work in the Wednesday October 3 issue of Colorlines, from whence I stole the great graphic at left of how mesh networks work.

That’s a whole mountain of social justice! Detroit’s digital future bears some serious watching (and probably even some imitating), if we want to figure out how to create an information age that works for all of us.

September 21, 2012

Welfare Internet

I’ve been thinking about technology policy in the United States in light of Mitt Romney’s May 17, 2012 comments that nearly half of United States citizens “are dependent upon government, believe that they are victims, believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing…pay no income tax…[and can] never [be] convince[d]…to take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

I’ll leave debunking the myths about poor and working people that Romney was relying on–and perpetuating–to others (for example, try Haroon Siddique or Michael Cooper on the taxes that are indeed paid by poor and working people). But I will take the opportunity to look at the ways that technology policy and reporting often make the same kind of false and damaging suppositions about people struggling to meet their basic needs, suppositions that misrepresent the reality of working people’s lives, intelligence, desires and opportunities.

 There has been a disturbing recent trend of describing universal access programs as “welfarist.” For example, I recently visited Champaign and Urbana, Illinois, whose UC2B project promises to connect 2,500 households in underserved neighborhoods to a fiber-optic big broadband network for free. While I was there, the Daily Illini, the student newspaper of the local university, ran an article about the project in which a community member described the project as “welfare Internet,” arguing that public tax dollars, through a federal grant, are being used unfairly to serve primarily poor and working-class households.

 Or take the recent New York Times article about Google’s attempts to interest poor and working-class residents of Kansas City, MO–particularly in African-American neighborhoods–to sign up in advance for their $70-120/month high-speed broadband service. When some community members balked at signing up and putting $10 down for an unclear deal that might cost big bucks in the future, journalist John Eligon argued that the primary struggle for Google was “convincing residents of the importance of Internet access — to apply for jobs, do research, take classes and get information on government services,” as if residents simply didn’t understand why the internet is significant.

Assessments such as these are often couched in patronizing faux-concern about the lurking dangers of high-tech tools and networks for those unable to afford them on the open market.* For example, a recent New York Times article, “Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era,” argued that children of parents who do not have a college degree are exposed to 1.5 more hours of media per day through televisions, computers and other gadgets than the children of parents with a college degree. Despite the fact that both groups of children used their high-tech tools primarily to watch videos, play games and connect to social media sites, the article decried a new and growing “time wasting gap,” suggesting that poor and working-class children are using internet technologies to avoid homework, stay up too late, and mortgage their futures to the momentary pleasures of the now. Sound familiar? This is as opposed to, for example, imagining that poor and working kids might lack access to the kinds of after school sports and enrichment activities widely available to children of the professional middle and owning classes, and therefore spend a little more time watching TV and scanning Facebook.

I find the idea that poor and working people lack an understanding of the importance of the internet, don’t deserve access, and misuse it when they do manage to get their hands on it deeply insulting. I hear in these stories disturbing echoes of the crudest cliches about the supposed ignorance, laziness and backwardness of people who struggle to meet their basic needs.

There are other factors at play in the complicated relationship between technology and working people, factors that rarely get any attention in the mainstream media. For example,

— The consequences of data profiling, data mining and privacy intrusions are significantly more severe for working people and other marginalized groups (see Seeta Gangadharan’s “Digital Inclusion and Data Profiling“)

— Working people, women and men of color tend to disproportionately experience the more negative uses of technology in the workplace, in their neighborhoods and in their interactions with government (see my book Digital Dead End)

— Poor and working folks tend to know a market lock when they see one. Their experience with predatory lending, pay-as-you-go phones, rent to own agreements, payday loans, and other scams has taught them that the “Buy now, Pay later” approach–of Google Fiber, for example–is rarely a good deal for them (see Gary Rivlin’s terrific Broke, USA).

It might be easier for the media and policy-makers to draw on common stereotypes to posit that poor and working people don’t understand technology, are afraid of it, and won’t put it to good use anyway. But it is remarkable to me that a country so plagued with class inequality still looks for behavioral and individual explanations of the desperate poverty so many Americans experience. The kinds of assertions I cataloged above rely on a presumption that simply isn’t true: that poverty in the richest country in the world is an aberration, experience by a damaged and suspect few.

As Mark Rank has shown in his superb One Nation, Underprivileged, poverty is not the minority experience in the US — the majority of us will face it at some point in our lives. Fifty-nine percent (59%) of Americans will live at least one year of their lives under the official poverty line ($11,170 a year for a single individual in 2012). Sixty-five percent (65%) of all Americans will at some point live in a household that receives means-tested welfare benefits, including SNAP/Foodstamps, SSI, Medicaid, AFDC, etc.

When we recreate myths about economic inequality–and the people who experience poverty–in our technology policy and reporting, we do all Americans a disservice. How would our policy be different if we understood communication–as facilitated by high-tech devices–as a fundamental human right central to the health and vigorous democratic functioning of our communities? What if the answer to “who deserves the internet?” was all of us?

* A significant number of people in the US cannot afford to pay for internet service, which is not surprising when you take into account the fact that, according to David Cay Johnson’s new book The Fine Print, Americans pay 38 times what the Japanese pay for internet service per bit of data moved, and that we pay more for internet connections that are ranked 29th in the world in terms of speed, behind Lithuania, Ukraine, and Moldavia.

June 15, 2012

Stop. Frisk. Double-Click.

The amazing organizing and coalition-building going on around stop and frisk policies in New York City inspired me to write “Stop. Frisk. Double-Click.” for the MIT Press Blog yesterday.

Stop and frisk is a controversial policy where officers detain and search people based on subjective evaluations of public behavior: furtive movements, “casing” a location, and bulges in clothing. The number of stop and frisks has increased by 704% over the last decade: from 97,296 stops in 2002 to 684,724 in 2011. According to New York Civil Liberties Union, there have been 4,356,927 stops during the Bloomberg administration alone.

Some facts from the ACLU’s stop and frisk campaign:

  • Though stop and frisks are ostensibly about controlling gun violence, in only 1.9% of cases does a frisk turn up a weapon.
  • 88% percent of people stopped in 2011 were guilty of no crime.
  • 87% percent of people stopped in 2011 were Black and Latino, and the majority of people detained are young men.

Stop and frisk raises important questions about how we want law enforcement to work, and who pays the price for  “zero-tolerance” approaches to crime. But part of the problem is CompStat, a system of law enforcement management and record keeping pioneered in New York City in the mid-1990s.

Public services — such as law enforcement, education, healthcare and public assistance — are increasingly being computerized. Automatic speeding tickets come in the mail. Doctors lug laptops into the exam room. Mostly we talk about whether these innovations work; sometimes we wonder about their impacts on privacy and confidentiality. But are these the wrong questions?

I write in the article,

At the heart of the matter is the quality of our citizenship, the nature of our relationship with the state and its representatives. Fact is, we are governed by systems like CompStat. They set the rules of engagement between us and the bureaucracies that maintain order, distribute resources, and shape our communities.

I’m just starting a new book, tentatively titled Disconnect: How Computers are Transforming Public Services, where I’ll look into these issues in depth. So tell me your story! How are computers changing your relationship with the police, your teachers, elected officials, your doctor? If you work in public and human services, how have the new technologies changed the nature of your job?

Comment here, or email me at virginia [at]!

March 31, 2012

Three Cheers for Radical Libarians!

About three stops into my spring 2011 book tour, I learned that I could ask, “Where’s my Radical Reference?” and a corner of the room would invariably erupt into waves and laughter. Yesterday, I was sponsored for a talk at Simmons College in Boston by the student group from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and the Progressive Librarians Guild. The audience was packed with radical librarians, information warriors, and social justice superstars.

Progressive Librarians, Unite!

To be frank, I was a little nervous. Sometimes folks misread the “access is not the ONLY  answer” argument in Digital Dead End as implying that I think that access is not important. I am particularly concerned that librarians not understand it that way, as I have enormous respect for the difficult and crucial work they do to connect citizens and community members to life-critical information and technology resources.

So let me be perfectly clear: Access to information and technology resources is crucial to participation in the new economy, the democratic practices of our communities, and emerging digital cultural forms. I started my book at the Troy Public Library, and finished it in the West Village branch of the New York Public Library. I count on my local library to fill my insatiable appetite for fiction, my endless need for gardening and home improvement books, even to provide a place to work that’s warm when I can’t quite afford to heat my house. When I am visiting a strange city, I know I can always find the library (it’s usually near city hall, and identified on most tourist maps) for email checking, newspaper scanning, and a place to work that doesn’t require I buy a cup of coffee in order to get the wireless password.

Librarians are clearly on the frontlines of technological access struggles in the Unites States. When funding for community technology centers was zeroed out during the GHW Bush administration, it was obvious that providing community technology capacity would fall on public libraries, many of which were already struggling to meet their patrons’ needs. By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, 98.9% of public libraries were providing free computer access. Since the beginning of the internet revolution in the mid-1990s, visits to public libraries have more than doubled, to 1.2 billion annually (ALA 2005). 32% of Americans over 14 years old regularly use public computers or wireless networks in their local public library (ALA 2011).

Imagine my chagrin today, then, when I headed over to the Central Square branch of the Cambridge Public Library to write this blog, and found it CLOSED. All weekend, every weekend. Closed. The writing on the door that said that the library was open from 10-3 on Saturdays was taped over, and the building was dark.

Our dear, departed Sycaway Branch.

It was eerily reminiscent of branch closings in the Troy public library system a few years ago, which prompted Senate “constituent liaison” and Republic Rensselaer county legislator, Bob Mirch, to declare,

If it comes to funding a library or buying a couple of snowplows, the choice is obvious. I mean, I don’t know how much the library gets used, with the Internet and computers nowadays (Chet Hardin, “Book Stupid,” Metroland v 32 n 2, 2009).

Clearly Mirch could use a librarian to help him get his facts straight. Library use has doubled in the last twenty years, Bob. Doubled.

Because I’m employed, mobile, and middle class, I’m here at a cafe drinking a $3 tea and typing away. But what about folks in the neighborhood? Weekend trips to the children’s room? A warm and safe place to pass some time if you are homeless or just need to get out of the house?

Do I have to say it? Libraries are SO IMPORTANT. Funded by billionaire philanthropists of the 20th century or not, they are democracy in action. I’m still awed when I walk out of a library with  a BOOK, that the library has just LOANED me, for FREE. How great is that?

So I want to take a moment to thank the radical librarians, and I think that’s all of you, actually. You’re radical because you work for institutions that provide safe space for community-building of all kinds: book groups, lectures, anime clubs, technology classes, pottery classes, skill shares and trainings. You’re radical because the library is one of the few places in many towns and cities where people actually come together across race, class, and gender. You’re radical because you believe that everyone deserves the resources to educate themselves, to answer their own questions, to learn their own histories, and to speak truth to power.