I recently spoke with Eubanks to about some of the main themes in her book. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Tanvi Misra: In your book, you lay out the troublesome history of poverty-management systems: from hellish “poorhouses” to the scientific charity movement, the New Deal welfare apparatus to the automation of welfare. What is the common thread?
Virginia Eubanks: Often when we talk about new technologies, we talk about them as “disruptors”—things that shake up the system that we're in right now. One of my big arguments in the book is that the tools that I’m talking about are more evolution than revolution. So that history really, really matters.
Why I start the book with a brick-and-mortar poorhouse is because it was the most innovative poverty-regulation system of its time, in the 1800s. It rose out of a huge economic catastrophe—the 1819 depression—and the social movements organized by folks to protect themselves and their families. What’s really important about the poorhouse—and this is the thread that goes throughout all of the things I talk about in the book—is that it was based on this distinction between what at the time were called the “impotent” and the “able” poor. The “impotent” poor were folks who, by reason of physical disability or age or infirmity, just couldn't work. The “able” poor were those folks who moral regulators at the time believed were probably able to work, but might just be shirking.
That distinction between the impotent and the able poor, which today we would talk about as “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, created a public-assistance system that was more of a moral thermometer than a floor that was under everybody protecting their basic human rights.
I think of that as the deep social programming of all of the administrative public-assistance systems that serve poor working-class communities. That social programming often shows up in invisible assumptions that drive the kind of automation of inequality that I talk about in the book.
Misra: You write about the “digital poorhouse” as an extension of these previous systems. What is that and when did it originate?
Eubanks: One of the most important historical moments that I talk about in the book is the rise of what I call the “digital poorhouse,” which is really the shift from quite sophisticated but analog systems of control to digital and integrated systems of control.
When I first started doing this book, I actually began in the New York State archives, looking for the technical documents of when the poverty-management system started to be computerized. I had just assumed that that would have happened in the 1980s with the widespread uptake of personal computers, or in the 1990s when the actual policy change happened around welfare reform, which required that local welfare offices computerize some of their processes.