Fingerprinting Those Seeking Food Stamps Is Denounced
By KATE TAYLOR
Taking aim at a practice she called unnecessary, costly and punitive, the speaker of the City Council, Christine C. Quinn, is asking the Bloomberg administration to justify requiring applicants for food stamps to be electronically fingerprinted.
New York City, where 1.8 million people receive food stamps, is one of only two jurisdictions in the country that require applicants to be fingerprinted, according to Ms. Quinn’s office. The other is Arizona.
California and Texas recently lifted a similar requirement; New York stopped using fingerprinting for food-stamp recipients statewide in 2007, but kept it in New York City at the Bloomberg administration’s request.
Robert Doar, the commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration, said the policy deterred fraud and prevented case duplication, catching 1,200 duplicated cases a year and saving about $4 million annually in federal benefits.
But Ms. Quinn and opponents of the practice say that there is no evidence that it prevents fraud and that cases of duplication could be found through other means. Instead, they say, it simply deters some New Yorkers from applying for food stamps.
In an interview, Ms. Quinn said that, at a time of rising poverty and budget cuts, the city should not be spending money on unnecessary enforcement measures.
“We’re spending public dollars where there is no crime being committed,” she said.
Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said that electronic fingerprinting created a stigma around applying for federal aid, treating “poor people as if they’re basically criminals for trying to access a program to which they’re legally entitled.” Since many of the city’s applicants for food aid are minorities, Mr. Berg said, requiring fingerprinting here, and not in the rest of the state, also raised civil rights issues. It is “electronic stop-and-frisk,” he said.
Applicants for cash assistance, like welfare, are also subject to electronic fingerprinting throughout the state, as well as in many other states, and the City Council is not questioning that practice.
The Council has estimated, based on research by the nonprofit Urban Institute, that 30,000 New Yorkers are not seeking food stamps because of the fingerprinting requirement.
“That’s $55.4 million of federal money we’re not getting in New York City to support people — money they would then spend at the supermarket or at the bodega,” Ms. Quinn said.
Because the Council cannot lift the requirement itself, Ms. Quinn and another councilmember, Annabel Palma of the Bronx, plan to introduce a bill that they hope will pressure the Bloomberg administration to change its view.
The bill would require the administration to disclose annually how many applicants to the federal food stamp program who were not also applying for cash assistance were subject to fingerprinting; how much money the city spent on the fingerprinting; how many cases of fraud were detected; and how many applicants were referred for criminal prosecution based on information obtained by fingerprinting.
Mr. Doar said in an interview that the city spent $190,000 to fingerprint food-stamp applicants last year. He said the number of people receiving food stamps had increased by 50 percent in the past three years and argued that people were not being dissuaded from applying because of the policy. “We haven’t found an alternative method that’s any better,” he said, adding, “We listen and learn from other states, but we also need to make our own decisions.”
In a statement, Samantha Levine, a spokeswoman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, said of the proposal: “This bill sounds as though it’s asking the wrong question. The right question is how much fraud is there, and the answer is: thanks to imaging, next to none.”
Copyright 2011 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, New York Region, of Wednesday, October 2011.