MLA Confronting Inequality conference

The Intellectual Freedom/Social Responsibility committee of the Massachusetts Library Association just put on an excellent one-day conference at the Milton Public Library. Speakers included Dr. Roopika Risam, recipient of the first Civil Liberties Champion award; Virginia Eubanks, professor of political science and author of Automating Inequality; and Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies and author of Born on Third Base (also, a Hampshire College alum, which I didn’t realize until after the conference).

Welcome slide to Confronting Inequality conference

Roopika Risam, of Salem State, worked with researchers at Columbia University and the University of Houston to produce Torn Apart/Separados, a data visualization project using public data (including a previously FOIAd list of detention centers and children’s shelters in the U.S.) to show the locations of ICE detention centers and their funding.  Risam said that she and other researchers asked themselves, “Can we [librarians, students, faculty] mobilize the skills we have to respond in times of crisis? Who are the people on the ground (lawyers, families), how can we be helpful to them?” The result was “Torn Apart/Separados,” released June 2018. Volume 2 – “to follow the money,” i.e. government contracts – was released later, and Risam showed us the “murderboard,” which shows connections between products, contractors, and subsidiaries.

Next, we heard from Chuck Collins, author of Born on Third Base and Is Inequality in America Irreversible? Starting with personal stories, he also gave an overview of how the U.S. was on track to becoming a more equal society after WWII, when progressive taxation was invested in public goods like infrastructure, education, and mortgage loans. The American Dream of social mobility was much more possible then than it is now; now, the American Dream is more achievable in Canada.

Since the 1970s, assets at the top have multiplied with little to no effort, while wages have stagnated. Wealth at the top has now reached “absurdist levels,” with the combined wealth of the 400 richest individuals in the U.S. equaling the combined wealth of the bottom 60% of households in the country; the three richest individuals (Bezos, Buffet, and Gates) have as much as the bottom 50% of households. Almost one in five households have zero or negative net worth; the “precariat” is largest-growing group in this country. If we look at the story through the lens of race, a median white family has 35x wealth of a median Black family and 27x wealth of a median Latinx family.

chuckcollins1

Is this inequality good for anyone? No. (See: Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty.) How do we make things more equal? There are plenty of answers, but the main one seems to be creating and maintaining a “social floor” or a “decency floor,” through which people cannot fall. Is this a “welfare state”? No, it’s a “pro-work state” that supports its people at a foundational level, adding security to everyone’s lives.

“What a good society does is it recycles opportunity,” says Collins. If you have millions or billions of dollars, you didn’t do it alone. But if you admit that you had help, you’re obligated to ensure a more level playing field for others. If you believe you did it alone (on hard work and merit), then you believe anyone else can do the same. “Powerful stories hold inequality in place,” such as “the myth of deservedness.” For some families – mostly white – public subsidies and assistance programs have led to stability, and wealth that can be passed down, but the recipients of this inheritance don’t always understand its origins. We can begin dismantling the myth of deservedness by identifying instances of advantage of privilege. “Tell true stories of how advantage works. Tell true stories about advantage.”

For more on the topic, check out Inequality.org.

chuckcollins2

Next up, we heard from Virginia Eubanks, author of Automating Inequality. Eubanks talked like most of my favorite teachers and professors: fast, energetic, full of memorable examples and cases, with plenty of evidence (some of it rendered in easily digestible, yet horrifying, cartoon form), wisdom and a sense of humor.

Eubanks described a number of terrible systems, from the Allegheny Family Screening Tool in Pennsylvania to the process for applying for public benefits in Indiana to the systems used in Los Angeles to match unhoused people with affordable housing.

Like Collins, Eubanks brought up the idea of a social floor or a decency floor; she called it the universal floor. One of her slides said, “For 200 years the US has chosen moral thermometers over universal floors in public services.” She said, “Tools have not gotten better or fairer over time, they’ve gotten faster and scaled up. The narrative of austerity says there’s not enough for everyone and we have to make difficult decisions about who deserves basic human rights.” Tech tools promise to address bias, but really they just hide it, often leading to “a feedback loop of injustice.”

"We're building a digital poorhouse" slide

Do people really mean to create these systems? It doesn’t take bad intentions to create bad impacts. Speaking of the 58,000 unhoused people in L.A. and the shortage of affordable housing there (and she went into the history of that a little bit), Eubanks said, “Triage only makes sense if there are more resources coming. If there aren’t more resources coming, it’s not triage, it’s rationing….The fundamental danger of these systems is that they make us think small.”

So, what do we do? (1) Change the story about poverty; (2) Shift from diagnosis to universal floors; (3) Design less harmful technology. Eubanks said, “If you make these systems poorly, they’re only cheap at first. If you do them well, they’re time- and labor-intensive and expensive. It’s very expensive to punish poor people for being poor….I believe it would be much less expensive to create a universal basic floor.”

Photo of Eubanks, Fiorillo, Collins in conversation

The conference ended with a moderated discussion and Q&A with Collins and Eubanks. Andrea Fiorillo of the Reading Public Library started off with a question about the importance of storytelling. Eubanks answered, “The key to dismantling the digital poorhouse is changing the way how we think, talk, and feel about poverty.” She added, “We have to understand our own experience differently….It’s a system we’re supposed to use to share national wealth so we’re investing in each other.” Collins, in addition to the “myth of deservedness,” mentioned the “myth of disconnectedness” and the “myth of superiority.” His audience is often wealthy, and he challenges them to demystify their advantage and tell their true story. He said, “Do an inventory – what forms of help did you get? Understand that advantage is multigenerational. We are shaming people who need help and that rebounds on the whole culture.”

One question/comment from the audience raised the issue that the often-praised Nordic countries with strong social floors are more homogenous than the U.S.; is it more challenging to create a social floor in a more diverse country? “Racism has been used to divide people,” Collins said, and Eubanks stated, “We don’t have to be the same to take care of each other.”

They also discussed the ways in which people opt into their communities or opt out of them. For many, there are plenty of everyday choices that add up to supporting and being part of a community, or not: drive or take the bus? Send kids to public school or private? Order from Amazon or go to the local library or bookstore? In many cases, the affluent (not just the superrich) are opting out. “Be accountable to the other people who live in your community.”

Speaking of communities and libraries, “Public libraries and their partners can be places for face-to-face conversations. The more stakeholders the better,” said Collins. And Eubanks noted the ways in which librarians have filled in as de facto caseworkers for social services, as many applications are online and many people still don’t have internet access at home.

Overall, there are reasons to be optimistic; namely, the solutions to many of these problems are clear. The real issue is, is the political will there? And can we act fast enough?

 

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