Food stamp recipients will no longer be fingerprinted, thanks to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision last week to eliminate the requirement.
The move will eliminate a barrier to receiving food stamps, as many people were reluctant to be fingerprinted, according to Linda Bopp, executive director of Hunger Solutions New York.
“When you’re told you need to be fingerprinted, you feel like a criminal,” Bopp said. “There’s nothing criminal about being hungry.”
New York and Arizona were the only two states in the country with a fingerprinting requirement.
Bopp said that each county was allowed to decide which applicants could be exempted from the fingerprinting requirement.
“In upstate counties, it was patchwork,” she said. “Some counties chose not to fingerprint anyone.” Eliminating the fingerprinting requirement “creates a level playing field throughout the entire state. You won’t be penalized because you live in a county that fingerprints people.”
Though all food stamp recipients in New York City were required to be fingerprinted, upstate counties often provided waivers for certain groups of people.
Sorange Zaccone coordinates the Nutrition Outreach and Education Program in Montgomery County, which seeks to increase participation in the federal food stamp program. She said the fingerprinting requirement was waived for most Montgomery County residents applying for food stamps. Seniors, the disabled and people with a hardship, such as a lack of transportation, were among those.
“We haven’t been doing it,” Zaccone said. “It was more of an issue downstate.”
Deborah Delosa, who coordinates the Nutrition Outreach and Education Program in Saratoga County, said fingerprinting was a barrier for people, but more and more people were receiving waivers.
In 2008, the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance announced the Working Family Food Stamp initiative, which barred counties from fingerprinting working adults.
The purpose of the fingerprinting requirement was to combat fraud, Bopp said. But she said that improvements in technology have made fingerprinting obsolete. Today, duplicate enrollment in the food stamp program can be prevented by matching applicants’ personal information, such as their social security numbers and landlord information, with information in other databases.
“In order to receive food stamps, you need to provide a high level of personal information,” Bopp said.
In April, the state implemented a new system for determining food stamp eligibility that uses applicant information to resolve discrepancies and prevent duplicate participation.
Mark Dunlea, executive director of the Hunger Action Network of New York State, praised Cuomo’s decision.
“It has always been appalling that only half of the guests at food pantries and soup kitchens in NYS are receiving food stamps, even though almost all of them are income eligible,” he said in a news release.
Food stamp enrollment has skyrocketed in recent years, which Bopp said is a reflection of the economy and high unemployment rate.
In 2007, about 1.8 million New Yorkers received food stamps; at the end of February, more than 3 million were enrolled in the program, state figures cite. Bopp said only 70 percent of the state’s eligible residents are currently enrolled in the program.
Hunger Solutions New York oversees 31 nutrition outreach programs outside of New York City. Bopp said the governor’s 2012-13 budget increased funding for these efforts by $1 million — an increase of nearly 50 percent — and the organization will be creating several new outreach programs. But she said details haven’t been set.
In the Capital Region, Schenectady, Albany, Saratoga and Montgomery counties all have nutrition outreach efforts, while Schoharie, Rensselaer and Fulton counties do not.
In his 2012 State of the State message, Cuomo said he wanted to increase participation in the food stamp program.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has defended the fingerprinting of food stamp recipients. After the change in policy was announced, Robert Doar, commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, issued a statement that read, “We’ve found that finger imaging identifies potential duplicate payments and prevents fraud, which saved more than $35 million over the last decade in a program that now provides services for 1.8 million New Yorkers annually.”
The regulations to eliminate fingerprinting are subject to a 45-day public comment period before being finalized.