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How Fingerprinting Food Stamp Recipients Hurts Everyone

New York will stop fingerprinting its food stamp recipients. That's good for the hungry—and the economy.

Every year, thousands of New Yorkers must report to state offices for government fingerprinting. These residents aren’t criminals. They’re applying to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly known as food stamps.

New York is one of two states that require stamp recipients to ink their fingertips to eat. That’s about to change: Governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans last week for New York to eliminate mandatory fingerprinting for food stamps in an effort to reduce the stigma associated with applying for government assistance. While most of New York state did away with mandatory fingerprinting back in 2007, New York City continues to enforce the rule. “We shouldn’t treat the poor or the hungry as criminals,” Cuomo said at a recent news conference. “That’s what we’ve been doing and that’s what’s going to stop.”

Cuomo’s new food stamp policy may seem like a necessary move to correct a longstanding injustice. But it’s sparked opposition from some who believe that mandatory fingerprinting is a necessary measure to protect against food stamp recipients abusing the system. In other words, we must treat people like criminals to ensure they don’t become criminals.

Mandatory fingerprinting started popping up in food assistance programs around the country a decade ago in an effort to prevent food stamp fraud. Today, New York and Arizona are the only states to continue the practice. New York City officials claim that the policy has saved the metropolis more than $35 million in fraudulent food stamp payments over the past 10 years and helped catch 1,900 cases of food stamp fraud in 2011 alone—including incidents of recipients using two names to collect double benefits. Many people, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, argue that without checks-and-balances like mandatory fingerprinting, applicants can get more than their fair share.

But that logic is not only unfair, it’s flawed. There are plenty of other ways to prevent fraud that don’t involve making poor people feel like criminals. New York and other states have instituted computerized application systems to store food stamp applicants’ birth dates, addresses, and Social Security numbers. Food stamps can now be issued via EBT cards—which work similarly to debit cards—so funds can easily be monitored electronically. Digital monitoring deters fraud, no prejudicial policy required.

Besides, cutting back on SNAP fraud isn’t the only consideration affecting the bottom line. In reality, making sure all food stamp-eligible people are able to access benefits actually stimulates the economy. As Gothamist recently reported, a 2010 USDA study found that "$5 in new food stamp benefits can generate $9 in total community spending, and every additional dollar’s worth of food stamp benefits generates 17 to 47 cents of new spending on food."

The data also shows that many people who are eligible to receive food stamps never bother to collect them. About 1.8 million New Yorkers currently receive SNAP benefits, but that’s only about 70 percent of the total number of people that could receive benefits if they chose to apply. Similar gaps pop up in states across the U.S.

The reasons for this deficit are many and complex—a confusing application process, lack of understanding of the qualifying process, pride. But mandatory fingerprinting is a particularly conspicuous and unnecessary barrier blocking food stamp usage. People who are forced to be fingerprinted often must travel to state aid offices, a problem for those who work during the day, or for parents with young children at home. And stigma can be an even bigger disincentive than logistics. According to the New York City Council, about 30,000 people were deterred from applying for food stamps last year by the mandatory fingerprinting policy.

The vast majority of the 46 million Americans on food stamps don't sign up because they want a handout or are looking to cheat the system. They receive benefits because times are hard, groceries are increasingly expensive, and they’re desperately trying to feed their families. We need to fight policies that put up insurmountable food access barriers, not encourage them. Outlawing mandatory fingerprinting is a good first step towards ensuring that all hungry people have a way to feed their families. New York is poised to end the system. Next up: Arizona.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Wonderlane

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