Biased Algorithms Are Determining Whether Poor Parents Get to Keep Their Kids

Poor people give away a lot of information. If you’ve never lived under the poverty line, you might not be aware how much of our personal privacy we trade away for basic benefits such as food stamps, health insurance, and utility discounts. It’s not just Social Security numbers and home addresses, which are required as part of these applications; it includes health histories, household incomes, living expenses, and employment histories. Most people shrug off this exchange: What good is personal data when you have no money and terrible credit anyway — especially when you don’t really have a choice?

But after decades of collecting this data, the government is putting it to use. This information is feeding algorithms that decide everything from whether or not you get health insurance to how much time you spend in jail. Increasingly, it is helping determine whether or not parents get to keep their kids.

When someone phones in a report of suspected child abuse — usually to a state or county child abuse hotline — a call screener has to determine whether the accusation merits an actual investigation. Sometimes they have background information, such as prior child welfare reports, to assist in their decision-making process, but often they have to make snap determinations with very little guidance besides the details of the immediate report. There are more than 7 million maltreatment reports each year, and caseworkers get overwhelmed and burn out quickly — especially when a serious case gets overlooked. New algorithms popping up around the country review data points available for each case and suggest whether or not an investigation should be opened, in an attempt to offset some of the individual responsibility placed on case workers.

The trouble is, algorithms aren’t designed to find new information that humans miss — they’re designed to use the data that humans have previously input as efficiently as possible.

“If you give it biased data, it will be biased,” explained Cathy O’Neil, mathematician and author of the book Weapons of Math Destruction, while speaking with me for a story I wrote for Undark last year. “The very short version is that when you’re using the past as a kind of reference for how it works well, you’re implicitly assuming the past is doing a good job of rewarding good things and punishing bad things. You’re training the system to say if it worked in the past, it should work in the future.”

Historically, low-income families have had their children removed from their homes at higher rates than wealthier families. As a result, these new algorithms work to codify poverty as a criteria for child maltreatment. Some of the variables that these tools consider are public records that only exist for low-income parents, such as parents’ poverty status, whether they receive welfare benefits like SNAP and TANF, employment status, and whether they receive Medicaid. Other factors, like previous criminal justice involvement and whether or not there have been allegations of substance misuse in the past, are also dramatically more likely for families living in poverty.

If you give it biased data, it will be biased.

This bias exists even in systems that have been highly praised, like the Allegheny Family Screening Tool currently being implemented in Pittsburgh, where prior arrests and parents’ mental health histories are considered factors in whether a child should be removed. It’s similar in other, less-transparent systems, like one in Florida where tech giant SAS contracted with the Florida Department of Children and Families to research which factors were most likely to contribute to the death of a child by maltreatment. According to press releases by SAS (some of which have been unpublished since they began garnering media attention) the company used public records such as Medicaid status, criminal justice history, and substance-use treatment history.

The results led jurisdictions in Florida to zoom in on factors that apply to huge swaths of families, including mine. In April of last year, an allegation of drug use and child abandonment led Broward County, Florida child welfare investigators to investigate my family. When my drug tests were negative, the investigation pivoted to my recent financial setbacks, which had been caused by my husband’s acute health crisis. My children were ultimately removed from my care, and we have been separated for nine months for reasons that are primarily financial. My case is far from unique. Three-quarters of child protective cases in the United States are related to neglect, not abuse, and that neglect usually means lack of food, clothing, shelter, heating, or supervision: problems which are almost always the result of poverty.

Ira Schwartz, a private analytics consultant, thinks he may have found a way to help re-balance this system. He conducted a research study in Broward County — the same county in which my case is based — that discovered the current approach to child welfare substantiation is highly flawed. According to his research, 90 percent of system referrals were essentially useless, and 40 percent of court-involved cases (which typically involve child removal) were overzealous and harmful, rather than beneficial, to the families. He created his own system that, like the Allegheny tool, predicted the likelihood that a family would become re-involved with the system. But he admits quite openly that predictive algorithms like his target the poor.

It’s a discrimination factor.

“We found in our study that lower socioeconomic status was one of the significant variables that was a predictor [for reinvolvement with the system],” said Schwartz. “The issue with higher-income families is … they just don’t really come into the system because they have other options. With higher-income families, when there’s child abuse or neglect or even spouse abuse and it’s reported, they can afford to go to private agencies, get private mental health services; they can see a psychiatrist or social worker or psychologist … it’s a discrimination factor.”

Schwartz believes that these types of admittedly discriminatory computer programs can still be put to good use when combined with prescriptive analytics, which would determine the services that high-risk families need in order to remain out of the system in the future. Schwartz says this would include services like rental assistance, food assistance, day care funding, and housekeeping services. This would help welfare agencies understand which families need what services, and streamline the process of providing them. (All jurisdictions are legally required to make “reasonable efforts” to help families resolve the issues that brought them under investigation, but how agencies go about meeting that standard varies widely by location.)

The issue with these algorithms is certainly not malice on the part of their creators. Even the more secretive, proprietary algorithms being created by companies like SAS claim to want to create a safer system that results in less child maltreatment. But it’s unclear if that is possible with the data that’s available. Without comparable data from wealthier populations, which are better protected by privacy laws, the new systems cannot produce accurate results — and even if more data were added, it would mean more families are being separated and surveilled.



Poverty Forces People to Surrender Their Pets. It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.

There are all kinds of stereotypes about the people who give up their pet to a shelter: They got tired of the dog after it wasn’t a cute puppy any more, or couldn’t be bothered to cut the cat’s nails so it wouldn’t scratch the furniture, or needed a new designer mix to match their handbag. The reality is quite different.

“Forty-plus million Americans live in poverty. They have pets and they love their pets,” said Matthew Bershadker, president and CEO of the ASPCA. Given the American average of 1.8 animals per household, Bershadker estimated that over 25 million cats and dogs are living in poverty, and he noted that 52 percent of the clients of the ASPCA Animal Hospital in NYC are living on less than $15,000 per year.

“We see people often who are in their darkest day,” said Lori Weise of Downtown Dog Rescue in Los Angeles, which is dedicated to helping people keep their pets. “They’re facing some other crisis, and they happen to own a dog.”

Weise’s organization finds many people are at the shelter because they’ve run out of options — often because they’ve run out of money — and they aren’t aware of resources to help. In one ASPCA study, 40 percent of low-income pet owners surrendering an animal to a shelter said they would have kept their pet if they’d had access to affordable vet care, and 30 percent said the same if they could have gotten free or low-cost pet food.

There’s a growing awareness that meeting the needs of low-income pet owners is central to the mission of animal rescue. “Everywhere I go, we are either involved in or are talking to people about safety net services,” said Bershadker. “It’s almost as if a few years back a massive light bulb went off in the animal welfare community and we stopped thinking about how to get animals out of shelters and we started thinking about how to keep animals from coming into shelters.”

Some programs have, in fact, been working to keep pets together with low-income owners for a while, and the people running them have learned some important lessons about what it takes. Downtown Dog Rescue, founded in 1996, has helped keep 12,000 pets from being surrendered to shelters in south Los Angeles since 2013. They don’t have fancy facilities, just a card table and two chairs outside the shelters they partner with, where they start a conversation with people who may be in a panic.

“They’re crying, bawling, shaking, maybe they have a citation — they’re scared,” said Weise. “I say, ‘if I told you I could help you, would you want to get rid of your pet today?’ And they often say: ‘Oh no, I love him.'”

Once they’ve established that someone would rather keep their pet, the counselors start to connect people to resources: a volunteer handymen that will patch a fence for someone who’s been cited for their dog running loose, low-cost training advice, and crucially, options for lower-cost vet care. In L.A., there are free spay and neuter services for low-income pet owners, as well as vets who provide a discount on services to people working with Downtown Dog Rescue. The numbers needed to help someone keep a pet often aren’t huge — Weise said it generally costs them less than $100. One challenge is often persuading vets to volunteer time and offer discounts. “A lot of them have tremendous amounts of student loans,” said Weise. “The young ones are struggling.”

Weise has found that it’s crucial to make it easy for vets to help. They work with three main animal hospitals, so no one vet is bombarded with cases. They make sure billing is free of complications: Clients show up with written vouchers stating what Downtown Dog Rescue is paying for, and there’s one point of contact for billing the organization. For their monthly free clinics, they handle all the organizational details: tables, chairs, event permits, outreach flyers. “The vets just show up, do the work and leave,” she said. “We stay in our own lanes. We don’t give medical advice, they don’t do planning and outreach, and it’s a beautiful relationship.”

As a national complement to the kind of work Weise is doing locally, the ASPCA is researching ways to lower the cost of vet care without diminishing quality. “How do we shorten diagnostic and treatment protocols?” asked Bershadker. “If the vet can diagnose more quickly with fewer tests, it’s cheaper, and if it’s cheaper it’s more accessible.” He pointed to a previous success: a technical advance in performing spay/neuter surgeries called the pedicle tie that’s allowed vets to complete the procedure in a shorter time.

We stopped thinking about how to get animals out of shelters and we started thinking about how to keep animals from coming into shelters.

Taking a broader view, Bershadker also thinks the field needs to take a cue from the legal world, which has a discipline of community-based lawyers, and find a way to make that possible for vets. “We need to create an economy around being a community veterinarian,” he said. “There’s a desire for vets to give back to their communities — we need to make it economically viable for them.” Making basic procedures more efficient is one way of doing this. More loan repayment programs for vets practicing in underserved areas like the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program are another possibility.

It’s critical that services be geographically accessible and that people are aware of them. One way to address those issues and be more efficient in general is to make use of existing institutions that already reach low-income people. One example is the ASPCA’s partnership with Food Bank for NYC to supply pet food, which in its first year has distributed nearly 100,000 pounds of dog and cat food to 254 food pantries.

“Rather than recreate the distribution system that they have perfected over time, we simply add pet food to that,” Bershadker said. “They’re happy about it because they want to serve the entire family, and we’re happy about it because the animals are getting fed.” What’s more, ASPCA puts stickers on the bags of food that inform clients about other services, so now if they need low-cost vet care, they know where to go.

Bershadker said that the animal welfare world needs to think creatively about partnerships like this with other systems such as child protective services, domestic violence services, and law enforcement. “You don’t need to rebuild the infrastructure — it exists,” he said. “You need to attach yourself to what is there.”



The Shutdown Shook Faith in Government Jobs, and That’s Bad For Everyone

The federal government has reopened after the longest shutdown in history, which caused federal workers to miss two paychecks and cost the economy $11 billion dollars — $3 billion of which will never be recouped. The scariest part, though, might be that this horror show is starting to seem normal.

This is the third time the government has shut down in the last year and — unless President Donald Trump drops his demand for a border wall — everything from the national parks to the National Science Foundation could be closing up shop again on Feb. 16.

In the face of all that, America’s federal workers are thinking twice about their careers — and that’s bad for workers and the country.

Historically, the federal government (and public service writ large) has been a pretty good place to work. Not only does it allow people to serve their country (which many are keen on), it is the kind of quality job that all people should have. There is stability. There are retirement benefits. There is health care. There is paid leave. There is pay transparency. There is a union.

Due in large part to the fact that the federal government has offered stable opportunities for advancement and a secure job with a steady paycheck, the federal workforce has disproportionately attracted people of color and people with disabilities. The latest data show that people of color are overrepresented in the federal government: More than 18 percent of workers in the federal government are black (compared to about 11 percent of the overall labor force) and Native Americans are more than one-and-a-half times as likely to work for the federal government than be in the overall labor force. Fourteen percent of full-time federal workers are people with disabilities, compared to 3.8 percent in the overall labor force. Veterans, who comprise nearly a third of the federal government, are also disproportionately represented.

But while federal jobs tick many of the job-quality boxes, satisfaction has been declining. The latest data reveal that morale at the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services fell by more than 10 percentage points between 2017 and 2018, and morale at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau dropped by an astounding 25 percentage points.

One can only imagine what basement these numbers would be in if the survey happened this week.

This decline is likely due in no small part to the fact that attacks on federal workers have been mounting in recent years. Their work has been condescendingly dismissed by Trump, and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow referred to their unpaid efforts during the shutdown as “volunteering.” They have been asked to work with fewer staff due to hiring freezes and for diminishing wages due to Republican-pushed pay freezes.

There are high costs to everyone when we treat federal workers like disposable widgets.

Public sector unions have come under attack, both by Trump and the Supreme Court. And now workers have literally been forced to make do without pay, while many have still been having to show up and clock in. More and more work is being shifted to contractors who have fewer protections and who will likely not even be paid for the time they could not work during the shutdown. (Contractor satisfaction, which is likely even lower, deserves a whole article unto itself.)

Is it any wonder there have been reports of federal workers departing government service?

This could spell trouble, not just for the workers themselves who deserve far more than to be pawns in Trump’s racist game of chicken with the economy, but for our country in general. Reduced employee morale can lead to lower productivity — not a good thing when you’re trying to run a business, much less a country. We’ve also seen what it looks like when we don’t sufficiently invest in public services: lines get longer, corporations get away with defrauding the American people, and people die waiting for the services and benefits they need.

And if Trump’s divisiveness leads to less diversity within the workforce, the evidence indicates that could be bad for the public, too, because it matters who our public servants are. Research finds that having a diverse public labor force is important for the consideration of the interests of people of color in a range of circumstances.  For example, having more black and Latino bureaucrats is related to having more Latinos and blacks judged eligible for rural housing loans. Having a larger share of black federal workers in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is positively related to the number of discrimination claims filed by black workers.

There are high costs to everyone when we treat federal workers like disposable widgets — and in the wake of the shutdown we may find out exactly how high they are.



So You Want to Tax The Rich: A How-To Guide

Taxing the rich has been a hot subject of late thanks to a few Congressional Democrats. First, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez floated the idea of raising the top marginal income tax rate to 70 percent. Then Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed a “wealth tax” on those who have at least $50 million in assets. And today, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed increasing the estate tax for those who inherit more than $3.5 million.

These ideas have been met with predictable consternation from conservatives. CEOs and Wall Street-types gathered at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos even had a good laugh when asked about Ocasio-Cortez’s idea.

But raising taxes on the rich isn’t a joke. It’s an economic necessity.

Today, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans have as much wealth as the bottom 95 percent combined. In every state in the U.S., income inequality has increased since the 1970s; overall, this level of inequality hasn’t been seen since the 1920s. Despite this, taxes on the richest Americans have generally decreased — a trend that was exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts.

In order to make and maintain the investments America needs in health care, education, infrastructure, and beyond, more revenue simply must be raised. And given the current concentration of wealth in America, raising taxes on the rich is one of the only logical places to start. (Plus, income inequality is demonstrably bad for democracy, as it allows the wealthy to accumulate huge amounts of money that they can then spend in order to elect people just like them or who will be sympathetic to their interests.)

There are plenty of ways to go about raising those taxes on the rich in order to combat these problems, but here are four broad ways to bring some balance back into the tax code.

1. Raise taxes on income.

Unsurprisingly, ultra-wealthy public figures including former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Republican Rep. Steve Scalise (LA), balked at Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion to raise the top income tax rate to 70 percent from its current 37 percent, complaining that this would rob the rich of most of their money. That’s based in a misunderstanding of how marginal tax rates work, because rates do not apply to the entirety of one’s income. In the case of a 70 percent rate on incomes of more than $10 million, it is only the 10,000,001st dollar and beyond that will be taxed at 70 percent. Under the American system of progressive income taxation, everyone pays the same rate on the same dollars, so everybody pays 12 percent on dollars 9,526 to 38,700, 22 percent on dollars 38,701 to 82,500 and on up the income scale.

Ocasio-Cortez and others have also proposed adding additional tax brackets, to separate out the super-duper-rich from the merely super-rich. Today, those making $600,000 or more annually are taxed at the same rate on their wage income as those making millions or billions of dollars, because the code tops out at that 37 percent rate. Ocasio-Cortez envisioned at least one new bracket with a higher tax rate at 10 million, and perhaps more besides.

Contrary to the hue and cry that met Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion, historically, America’s top tax rate has been 70 percent or higher. It’s only since the Reagan administration that today’s levels came into vogue; in the 1950s, for instance, the top marginal rate exceeded 90 percent, a time when economic growth in the U.S. reached some of the highest rates on record.

Applying a 70 percent rate to incomes of more than $10 million would raise about $700 billion over 10 years. That alone would more than cover the cost of SNAP, which provides food for 42 million Americans, for a decade.

2. Raise taxes on investments.

Currently, the most anyone can be taxed on their wage income, which they make from going to work and collecting a paycheck, is 37 percent. However, the peak tax rate on the money made from investments such as stocks (which are known as capital gains) is just 20 percent. Nearly all of the benefits from the lower tax rate on investments flow to the wealthiest Americans, because they make the vast majority of the investment income in the country. The Tax Policy Center estimates that just 4 percent of households in the bottom 80 percent of households will face any capital gains tax from 2018.

While the gap between investment and wage income is supposed to boost economic growth by encouraging the rich to spread their money around, the evidence that it actually does so is thin. The gap does, however, contribute to income inequality in a significant way.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, former Obama administration official Steven Rattner called for raising the capital gains tax to equalize it with taxes on income. As recently as the 1980s, capital gains income and wage income were treated equally, so there’s no reason to think that the current standard is something that can’t change. (Of course, the White House is now mulling over unilaterally cutting capital gains taxes instead.)

3. Raise taxes on wealth.

America currently leads the world in the number of billionaires, who hold about $3.2 trillion in wealth. In 2018, the world’s billionaires increased their collective wealth by $2.5 billion per day. A “wealth tax,” as it’s known, would tax the assets held by the very richest Americans every year. Warren specifically called for applying a 2 percent tax on Americans with assets of more than $50 million, and a 3 percent tax on those who have more than $1 billion.

This is another avenue for addressing the fact that wage income and investment income are treated so differently, but it also gets at the fact that the current tax system allows untaxed benefits to accrue and accrue, and even be passed on from generation to generation, tax free, since the capital gains tax is only levied when assets are sold. Four other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development currently tax wealth in this way, though that is down from 12 in 1990.

In many ways, a tax like this would merely apply to the rich the same rules that already apply to the middle-class, since middle-class wealth is mainly built via property, i.e. homeownership, that is taxed annually.

Warren’s proposal is estimated to raise about $2.75 trillion over 10 years from about 75,000 families. That could cover the 10-year cost of the Children’s Health Insurance Program 17 times.

4. Raise taxes on inheritances.

 The Republican tax bill also raised the exemption on the estate tax – which is levied on inheritances – to $11 million, meaning a married couple can pass on $22 million tax free. During the Clinton administration, the exemption was under $1 million, and was $175,000 as recently as 1981. Lowering the exemption and increasing the top marginal estate tax rate, which currently stands at 40 percent, would not only raise billions of dollars in revenue but reduce the ability of the richest families to entrench income inequality via handing vast fortunes on to the next generation. (Congressional Republicans are currently calling for the estate tax to be repealed entirely, which would only benefit 2 out of every 1,000 families. For the same price, Congress could literally buy everyone in America a pony.) 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on Thursday intends to release a plan to lower the estate tax exemption to $3.5 million and add several new brackets, including a 55 percent rate on inheritances of more than $50 million and a 77 percent rate on those of more than $1 billion.

Also, doing away with what’s known as step-ups on inheritance, as the Obama administration proposed, would be beneficial. Under current law, when an asset is bequeathed to someone else, the increase in value is never taxed. Instead, the inheritor simply gets to start counting his or her own increase from the value on the day the asset was inherited. (As an example, if your grandfather bought stock for $2 per share, then passed it to you when it cost $10 per share, you never have to pay the tax on that $8 increase.) Closing this loophole could raise more than $600 billion over 10 years, enough to cover the cost of the entire Pell Grant program, which sends more than 20 million low-income students to college every year, 1.5 times for that decade.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of ways to increase revenue from the richest Americans, of course. But any of them is a start. And for any member of the 1 percent who might balk at paying higher tax rates, just remember: It beats getting eaten.



Burnout Is a Capitalism Problem, Not a Millennial One

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran another iteration in the conversation about millennial burnout, this time focusing on the hustling economy — a topic that has been amply critiqued in recent years. Writer Erin Griffith explored “toil glamour” and the high expectations to love the work you’re doing so much that you’ll put in long hours at the hustle. #RiseAndGrind, you’re falling behind. It followed on Anne Helen Petersen’s incredibly popular Buzzfeed piece on millennial burnout that focused on debt, disrupted career paths, dashed dreams, and reluctance to do errands.

The fundamental flaw of such pieces — often beautifully written and deeply intimate — is that they are personal. They highlight the struggles of a narrow swath of the authors’ generation, but fail to consider the larger implications that their experiences may have for the country as a whole. They bemoan a failure to achieve a promised life, but this life was only promised to, and expected by, a specific group of people.

That life includes a specific set of circumstances to measure against, with a further expectation that you love what you do for a living or you’re not living the life you deserve. But this concept of a promised land is not limited to the millennial generation. In fact, for a hundred years, that dream lifestyle has mostly looked the same: The ability to buy a nice home in a cute neighborhood with a middle-class income, an emotionally rewarding dream job, and exotic vacations to warm climates every winter. (For a uniquely millennial twist, add a French bulldog with an active social media presence.)

The idea of “passion jobs,” where people pursue jobs that are emotionally fulfilling, has its roots in the 1900s. Every generation since has experienced frustrations when running up against the reality of the working world, whether the aftermath of the Depression for the Silent Generation, the corporate restructuring that narrowed opportunities for Generation X, or the tyranny of the precarious “gig economy” for millennials.

This dream is a specifically middle-class one, though, and it speaks primarily to a relatively small group of people: Those who always assumed they would go to college, for example, and who undertook debt to do so. People who assumed that they would be rewarded with gainful employment as a rite of passage, because this, too, was something they were told. White people. Nondisabled people. People who haven’t been thrown out of their homes or excluded from jobs because of their gender or sexual orientation. People who don’t have financial obligations to family members that may have started as soon as they were old enough to work.

For a disabled Latinx millennial with no college degree scrubbing toilets and caring for two generations at home, reading about how getting knives sharpened is too exhausting to contemplate is not necessarily relatable, even if that person is struggling with the same fundamental problem: Employers who view them as disposable and the familiar refrain that if you bootstrap hard enough, you’ll come out on top. The failed promise for many people from working and lower-class backgrounds isn’t a house with a picket fence, but basic human dignity, a life where your needs are met and you are treated with respect, whether janitor or CEO.

This is a basic function of capitalism: Walling off communities that should be able to find common ground.

Treating the experience of feeling beaten down by a job that abuses you as something exceptional that primarily affects a class of predominantly white knowledge workers in New York, D.C., and Los Angeles makes commentary on the subject feel self-indulgent and privileged. It confuses a lost middle-class dream with something much deeper. It fails to expand to a larger conversation about what it means to be poor — not broke — and working class in America, and how exhausting and demoralizing it can be to have no money and feel like you have no future.

There is a nagging sense, while reading works like these, that the authors are desperately striving for class mobility to distance themselves from their imagined vision of poverty. They aren’t like those other people — the ones without college degrees, the ones caring for family members at home, the ones with messy lives who are experiencing intergenerational poverty. They’re better than that and deserve better, and thus have no reason to find common cause with the garbage men and housekeepers, doormen and farmworkers of the world, even if both are experiencing sexual harassment, a vast wage gap between worker and executive, workplace instability, and other “millennial burnout” woes.

This is a basic function of capitalism: Walling off communities that should be able to find common ground before they have an opportunity to build coalitions and power. Sweeping rhetoric that claims to speak for a whole generation while only describing narrow experiences is fundamentally alienating for members of the same generation who may find little in common with the way “burnout” is presented, even if they are also experiencing it. It can verge on the offensive when it borrows from the language marginalized people have developed to describe the bone-deep, existential pain of living in a world where they, and their lives, are not valued.

This isn’t a “millennial burnout” problem. This is a capitalism problem. Let’s start treating it like one.