1:00 pm Nov. 22, 20111
The Bloomberg administration's practice of requiring food-stamp applicants to be fingerprinted isn't a common one.
The only other jurisdiction in America that imposes the same requirement, at the moment, is the state of Arizona.
The application process for food stamps In New York City isn't terribly simple to begin with. And the additional finger-imaging requirement is being imposed as the need for food stamps increases, with one in five New Yorkers, and one in three children, now living in poverty.
At a Council hearing yesterday focusing on the finger-imaging policy, Councilman Albert Vann asked Robert Doar, commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, which administers food stamps, whether New York City’s unusual position on this issue wasn’t just “a little disturbing.”
“I like to be different, councilmember,” said Doar. “I think it’s OK to be different from the rest of the country. The rest of the country isn’t always so great. And what we feel is important, and has been true for the last period of time, is that there hasn’t been, at least, anger and animosity, and resentment at H.R.A. and our employees and those of us that administer these programs, because people in New York seem to feel we do what we can to make sure we’re not taken advantage of.”
Doar also said, “These other states that have recently given up finger-imaging, their program-access statistics were much, much worse, much worse than New York City’s."
New York City’s participation rate is almost 85 percent, using the methodology of the program's Access Index, said Doar.
Critics counter that a high rate of usership in a bad economy shouldn't be all that surprising.
“While the administration may consider its increase in SNAP participation to be a strength, the unfortunate reality is that the increase is based on need,” said Kate MacKenzie, director of policy and government relations at City Harvest, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, in her testimony. “If the increase in participation came at a time when the number of eligible individuals was constant, that would be a success, yet that isn’t the case.”
Doar also argued that the policy, controversial thought it may be, is effective in weeding out multiple applications.
This past year, according to Doar, the practice netted nearly 2,000 instances of duplicate applications for food stamps, although he said some of those 2,000 instances "may be inadvertent or due to human error."
Doar estimates the program saved more than $5.3 million in "actual and-or potential misappropriated benefits," and said the cost of administering the finger-printing was only $182,596.
Attempts by members of the Council to get Doar to specify just how many of the 2,000 duplicate applications caught by the finger-imaging system were inadvertent mistakes by applicants or clerical errors, and not attempts at fraud, went nowhere.
“Where do those 2,000 cases fall with respect to those three different categories you’ve included in your testimony, and more importantly, how many did you identify that were attempting to take advantage of the system?” asked Councilwoman Carmen Arroyo.
“I don’t have that number for you,” said Doar.
Doar said attempted fraud had been deterred by finger-printing, though he couldn’t measure by how much. He declined to allow that New Yorkers might be subject to deterrence for other reasons.
Critics of the city's policy argue that some would-be food-stamp applicants are deterred by the finger-imaging requirement.
Last year, Nicholas Freudenberg, a professor at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, conducted a study of CUNY students, about two in five of whom had experienced some degree of food insecurity over the prior year. Of those who did not apply for food stamps, 28 percent said they were too embarrassed to do so, and 23 percent “perceived too many obstacles.”
Joel Berg, executive director of New York City Coalition against Hunger, said in his written testimony, “Finger-imaging most harms working parents who have to leave work and lose wages just to spend a day at a city government office to prove they are virtuous enough to obtain the federal nutrition assistance benefits for which they have already paid taxes to support."
When Councilwoman Annabel Palma asked if Social Security numbers might suffice for identification purposes, as they do elsewhere, Doar said, “There isn’t anything that’s as effective as this. It works.”
Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a close ally of the mayor and a leading prospective candidate for the Democratic mayoral nomination in 2013, has spoken out against the practice. So too has one of her likely mayoral rivals, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who, in his written testimony, said, “[W]e deter enrollment by requiring applicants to be fingerprinted-a requirement that adds stigma to those already struggling with hunger and poverty.”
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who is also running for mayor in 2013, argued against the practice yesterday on the Brian Lehrer show, during which he called finger-printing “a psychological barrier to say the least.”
“Navigating any government office is difficult,” he added. “This is a case where we’re not trying to add difficulty.”
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