The advocates of automated and algorithmic approaches to public services often describe the new generation of digital tools as “disruptive.” They tell us that big data shakes up hidebound bureaucracies, stimulates innovative solutions, and increases transparency. But when we focus on programs specifically targeted at poor and working-class people, the new regime of data analytics is more evolution than revolution. It is simply an expansion and continuation of moralistic and punitive poverty management strategies that have been with us since the 1820s. The story of the poorhouse and scientific charity demonstrates that poverty relief becomes more punitive and stigmatized during times of economic crisis. Poor and working-class people resist restrictions of their rights, dismantle discriminatory institutions, and join together for survival and mutual aid. But time and again they face middle-class backlash. Social assistance is recast as charity, mutual aid is reconstructed as dependency, and new techniques to turn back the progress of the poor proliferate.
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