The coming war on the hidden algorithms that trap people in poverty | MIT Technology Review
A growing group of lawyers are uncovering, navigating, and fighting the automated systems that deny the poor housing, jobs, and basic services.
Credit-scoring algorithms are not the only ones that affect people’s economic well-being and access to basic services. Algorithms now decide which children enter foster care, which patients receive medical care, which families get access to stable housing. Those of us with means can pass our lives unaware of any of this. But for low-income individuals, the rapid growth and adoption of automated decision-making systems has created a hidden web of interlocking traps.
Fortunately, a growing group of civil lawyers are beginning to organize around this issue. Borrowing a playbook from the criminal defense world’s pushback against risk-assessment algorithms, they’re seeking to educate themselves on these systems, build a community, and develop litigation strategies. “Basically every civil lawyer is starting to deal with this stuff, because all of our clients are in some way or another being touched by these systems,” says Michele Gilman, a clinical law professor at the University of Baltimore. “We need to wake up, get training. If we want to be really good holistic lawyers, we need to be aware of that.”
“This is happening across the board to our clients,” she says. “They’re enmeshed in so many different algorithms that are barring them from basic services. And the clients may not be aware of that, because a lot of these systems are invisible.”
Government agencies, on the other hand, are driven to adopt algorithms when they want to modernize their systems. The push to adopt web-based apps and digital tools began in the early 2000s and has continued with a move toward more data-driven automated systems and AI. There are good reasons to seek these changes. During the pandemic, many unemployment benefit systems struggled to handle the massive volume of new requests, leading to significant delays. Modernizing these legacy systems promises faster and more reliable results.
But the software procurement process is rarely transparent, and thus lacks accountability. Public agencies often buy automated decision-making tools directly from private vendors. The result is that when systems go awry, the individuals affected——and their lawyers—are left in the dark. “They don’t advertise it anywhere,” says Julia Simon-Mishel, an attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance. “It’s often not written in any sort of policy guides or policy manuals. We’re at a disadvantage.”
The lack of public vetting also makes the systems more prone to error. One of the most egregious malfunctions happened in Michigan in 2013. After a big effort to automate the state’s unemployment benefits system, the algorithm incorrectly flagged over 34,000 people for fraud. “It caused a massive loss of benefits,” Simon-Mishel says. “There were bankruptcies; there were unfortunately suicides. It was a whole mess.”
Low-income individuals bear the brunt of the shift toward algorithms. They are the people most vulnerable to temporary economic hardships that get codified into consumer reports, and the ones who need and seek public benefits. Over the years, Gilman has seen more and more cases where clients risk entering a vicious cycle. “One person walks through so many systems on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “I mean, we all do. But the consequences of it are much more harsh for poor people and minorities.”
She brings up a current case in her clinic as an example. A family member lost work because of the pandemic and was denied unemployment benefits because of an automated system failure. The family then fell behind on rent payments, which led their landlord to sue them for eviction. While the eviction won’t be legal because of the CDC’s moratorium, the lawsuit will still be logged in public records. Those records could then feed into tenant-screening algorithms, which could make it harder for the family to find stable housing in the future. Their failure to pay rent and utilities could also be a ding on their credit score, which once again has repercussions. “If they are trying to set up cell-phone service or take out a loan or buy a car or apply for a job, it just has these cascading ripple effects,” Gilman says.
“Every case is going to turn into an algorithm case”
In September, Gilman, who is currently a faculty fellow at the Data and Society research institute, released a report documenting all the various algorithms that poverty lawyers might encounter. Called Poverty Lawgorithms, it’s meant to be a guide for her colleagues in the field. Divided into specific practice areas like consumer law, family law, housing, and public benefits, it explains how to deal with issues raised by algorithms and other data-driven technologies within the scope of existing laws.