A Consequence of Faceless Bureaucracy Using Cold Data

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Back in the sunny days before many people had even heard about the Unified Health Infrastructure Project (UHIP), let alone before it was a byword for the Ocean State’s dysfunctional government, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity was warning about a “dependency portal.”

The idea behind the system is that state government will consolidate the information it collects for every type of welfare benefit and program it operates.  That information would be updated in an ongoing way, and people will automatically receive any benefits for which they are newly eligible.

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Of course, the flip side is that people would also automatically lose any benefits for which they are no longer eligible.  Moreover, nobody should believe that politicians and bureaucrats would not find other uses for this treasure trove of information.

Turn, now, to Elizabeth Brico’s commentary on Talk Poverty:

… 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.

Admittedly, I get the impression I wouldn’t agree with some of Brico’s broader assumptions and prescriptions, but empowering a faceless bureaucratic system to intervene intimately in people’s lives based on cold data is a frightening idea on its face.



  • Rhett Hardwick

    “but empowering a faceless bureaucratic system to intervene intimately in people’s lives based on cold data is a frightening idea on its face.”

    When my daughter was approximately 3, she leaned on a drop leaf coffee table. The leaf broke off an she cut here face on the hinge. I took her to the hospital. I then spent two hours watching her bleed until it coagulated, while numerous “mandated reporters” interrogated her to see if I had done it to her. Finally they agreed to treat her. Couldn’t they have patched her up first?

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