Automating Inequality

Automating Inequality

How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor

Virginia Eubanks

in 2014 Maine Republican governor Paul LePage attacked families in his state receiving meager cash benefits from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). These benefits are loaded onto electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards that leave a digital record of when and where cash is withdrawn. LePage’s administration mined data collected by federal and state agencies to compile a list of 3,650 transactions in which TANF recipients withdrew cash from ATMs in smoke shops, liquor stores, and out-of-state locations. The data was then released to the public via Google Docs. The transactions that LePage found suspicious represented only 0.03 percent of the 1.1 million cash withdrawals completed during the time period, and the data only showed where cash was withdrawn, not how it was spent. But the governor used the public data disclosure to suggest that TANF families were defrauding taxpayers by buying liquor, lottery tickets, and cigarettes with their benefits. Lawmakers and the professional middle-class public eagerly embraced the misleading tale he spun from a tenuous thread of data. The Maine legislature introduced a bill that would require TANF families to retain all cash receipts for 12 months 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 out-of-state ATMs. The proposed laws were impossible to obey, patently unconstitutional, and unenforceable, but that’s not the point. This is performative politics. The legislation was not intended to work; it was intended to heap stigma on social programs and reinforce the cultural narrative that those who access public assistance are criminal, lazy, spendthrift addicts.

Link · 117