Discrimination by Math

5399389a5e1ae61cf1eda5d0e84ef070Seattle   Having spent a week in Juneau, Alaska working with men and women dealing daily with the stigma and discrimination that comes with mental health challenges and disabilities, I should have been prepared for Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction and its warnings of the pervasive, powerful, and often destructive and discriminating role that Big Data and the algorithms it is fueling are having on all of our lives. I wasn’t. But, I also wasn’t surprised.

One of the issues I heard about from the members of MCAN included being fired from jobs in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They didn’t know the half of it! O’Neil detailed the way that huge employers including lower wage service establishments like McDonalds and others are using personality tests with data driven questions that sort out people with any kind of mental health issue. A lawyer in Tennessee watched his son, a super student with two years at Vanderbilt University who had dropped out for a couple of semesters to deal with depression successfully, somehow failed to land any minimum wage jobs as a janitor, burger flipper, and so forth from a number of companies using the same blunt instrument of a personality test. He filed a ADA class action suit that is still pending. Even that may be only the tip of the iceberg since data driven, resume reader machines are also discarding applications with a few misspellings, bad typos, and other trivialities.

These WMD’s, as O’Neill cleverly calls them, are perhaps most destructive when it comes to the way too many of them from police and crime statistics to loan applications to even the efforts to get insurance or an apartment from a landlord are discriminating, often invisibly, based on the zip codes identifying where someone lives. The question may never say race or risk, but the zip code identifying the neighborhood plots the Big Data odds, and they do not stack up in your favor. Stop and frisk programs, common under New York mayors Guilliani and Bloomberg and now touted by Trump, under analysis revealed huge racial profiling and targeting of African-Americans and Latinos because of misapplied and understood algorithms.

It was also disconcerting, given our long experience in the United States and Canada in providing service at citizen wealth centers for low-and-moderate income families to find that algorithms employed by payday lenders, diploma mills, and other shyster, predatory operations that are datamining names and contact information from people who are going online to ask for information and access to programs to provide them advice or assistance. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I can remember complaining to our tech people years ago when we used Google Ads about the fact that I could be writing a Chief Organizer Report on our fights against payday lenders and find, embarrassingly, ads running alongside my blog for some of the same blood sucking, scammers I was calling into account in the paragraphs next to their ads. Duh!

It goes on and on. O’Neill cautions that there are dangers here, and they need to be regulated not just for privacy along the European opt-in system, but for transparency. If you ever thought, even for a second, that some of the “value-added” tests for teacher evaluations that many states have employed were valid or about the meaning of things like body-math-indexes and wellness, your application for McDonald’s would also probably be rejected.

She does argue that it is not the math’s fault, as much as the way the math is being used. With a different objective some of the same algorithms could be pointing people in the right direction, connecting them with resources, getting them out of prison, rather than in, and into a job rather than out on the street.

There seems to be no mathematical formula on when that miracle might happen.


Cash Flow is Huge for Low-and-Moderate Income Families

Money coins fall out of the golden tapNew Orleans   In reckoning with the daily, survival and success struggles of low-and-moderate income families given the myriad of challenges they face, sometimes the experts stumble over the obvious in one of those, “Oh, yeah!” moments that we all have. Reading a recent copy of Shelterforce magazine, there was an article called “Is Financial Unsteadiness the New Normal” by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider which offered a case study of just such a moment. They examined the demands of financial security for lower income families closely and argue that in addition to looking at income, especially annual income, and assets, as paltry as they are, we need to look at cash flow to understand the full dimensions of citizen wealth for such families. Now, we can all say together, “of course!”

In dealing with the crises facing such families in our increasingly inequitable society, economists have long noted that assets have fallen to hardly above zero for many families, especially in the wake of the clawback of home ownership for minorities. The Pew survey folks have found that 41% of all households have less than $2000 in liquid savings. Other reports have noted that many families do not have the liquid resources to deal with a financial crisis of even $400 without help from family, friends, or lady luck.

The authors point out that looking at their US Financial Diaires Study Households of about 235 families in California, Mississippi, Ohio-Kentucky, and New York City they found some discomforting information,

“…we found…evidence of a lot of volatility within the year. On average, families in the study had more than five months a year when income was 25 percent above or below their monthly average. For example, a household making $36,000 a year isn’t necessarily making $3000 a month. Based on our data, for more than five months a year, that family will earn less than $2250 or more $3750.”

All of which makes it hard to save and hard to spend and contributes to the problem. The irregularity of a families’ income stream means the issue for many is more “illiquidity than insolvency.”

The issue is so severe that the author’s cite a report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Pew people that 85% of the 2000 households surveyed would prefer financial stability over “moving up the income ladder.” In essence, people are voting give me stability rather than stress even if it means less cash and a lower lifestyle: a good bird in hand, rather than who knows what in the bush.

The authors found that this illiquidity creates a snowball effect on other issues as well. These are not problems solved by the bankers favorite stopgap of “financial literacy” programs either. People are very well informed that they have irregular income, and given the rise of the contingent employment and informal employment economy, they know there are going to be ups and downs. When I was organizing hotel housekeepers and other hospitality employees, all of them knew they were going to be hurting for money in the New Orleans summer as well as over Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays when the room count was down, but that didn’t mean they could grow other dollars on different trees, though many tried, more fail.

The authors correctly point out that this makes budgeting horrific, and exacerbates the affordable housing dilemma for low-and-moderate income families. You can forget about home ownership if your income never gets to the point where you can create a down payment. Of course the home ownership model for citizen wealth for lower income families is already severely challenged, if not destroyed, but recognizing the role of cash flow puts another nail in the coffin of that dream rather than in the beams of a new house.

Representing school workers in Texas who have an option of choosing to receive their money year round rather than just during the school year, our union can see that some employers have long understood the simple facts of cash flow, but clearly as Morduch and Schneider point out, that’s not enough to start seeing a solution to the problem even if underscores the continuing crisis. This is a “new normal” or a clearer picture of the old normal hardly matters, it’s a huge barrier for millions of families and getting bigger, not smaller.