Opportunity Blocked

Want to be that one person who bootstraps themselves out of poverty and makes it, against all odds? Not if Facebook has anything to do with it.

Now that’s already a stretch without Facebook. We already know that that rags-to-riches part of the American myth is just that—myth. Social mobility in the United States is at a serious low right now. It’s half that of mobility in Australia and Canada, and is even worse for those in growing up in metro areas with high inequality.

One of the things that these researchers have found is that economic segregation is a big factor in economic mobility. Areas that are more residentially segregated tend to have worse outcomes—for everyone except those at the very top.

This points in some directions that one could go to fix it—fight the NIMBY exclusionary tactics that create areas of concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty. Rectify decades of disparate treatment and investment so that the places that have been left behind are no longer places that many people feel the need to flee as soon as they have means. Fix the urban design and transportation systems that reinforce the fragmentation of our regions and isolation of certain groups of people. Fight for real educational equity.

These are not easy things. But a recent patent from Facebook wants to make them moot even if we succeed. Facebook recently applied for a patent on technology that would allow lenders to use the credit scores of your social network in their lending decisions.

Let that sink in.

If this were to come to pass, it might not even be enough to physically “move to opportunity,” or move opportunity to you, to escape the legacy of financial redlining—to move into the financial mainstream, people trying to get out of poverty might have to disconnect themselves from their previous family and friends who are still struggling. Separation from social networks is already one of the big emotional and logistical difficulties described by people who make an assisted move from a struggling neighborhood to a wealthier one. So for someone to say, explicitly, that to actually “make it” you must cut off any public declaration of connection to those who haven’t “made it” is offensive on a deep level.

Of course when you start to research this, you find that social networks are already being used to reinforce financial disparities, albeit not by regulated financial institutions in lending decisions.

Still, the bluntness of Facebook’s product description makes the nastiness behind the algorithms more visible. It envisions a future in which people who have long been redlined by race and geography remain even more forcibly digitally redlined, with groups of haves and have-nots growing farther apart. But in a sick twist, they are told that if they just turned their backs on their community, a few of them might have a better chance of making it out.

Like it or no, social media is a powerful and important force in people’s lives, and it is unreasonable to tell people to eschew it or take their lumps, just as it would be to tell people to avoid illegal wiretaps by not owning a phone. Regulation needs to catch up with big data—and fast. And advocates for financial justice need to think about where they stand on this kind of strategy.

Credit scores themselves are already discriminatory, even as they ubiquitous. Elizabeth Warren recently launched a crusade against employers using them in employment decisions. Even the community development finance field—nonprofits focused on economic justice through serving people who are not well served by mainstream banking— seems to approach them with a combination of skepticism and working within the system. They may underwrite folks with lower scores than mainstream lenders might because they do more individual underwriting and they try to help people avoid getting taken advantage of, but often they still use the scores and work with people to specifically to raise them, a tacit acknowledgement of how powerful they are. This can be a reasonable compromise line to walk, done right.

I just hope that we never see the day where any well-meaning nonprofit is counseling their clients about their social network score, how to cull their friends list, and strategies to still stay close to their loved ones and connected to their neighbors despite officially cutting them off online. At that point we will have lost our soul.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Sept. 24, 2015.)

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