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Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York State, wants to stop fingerprinting food stamp recipients. Aside from Arizona, New York is the only place where the policy still exists. Cuomo says fingerprinting stigmatizes needy people and stops them from asking for help. And that pits the popular governor against New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who says fingerprinting prevents fraud. Cindy Rodriguez of our member station WNYC reports on a policy that stretches back many years.
CINDY RODRIGUEZ, BYLINE: Governor Andrew Cuomo's pledge to stop fingerprinting food stamp recipients was one of the biggest applause lines in his recent State Of the State speech.
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GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: I'm saying stop fingerprinting for families with children for food. Stop it all across the state.
RODRIGUEZ: New York was one of the first states in the country to use digital imaging to take people's fingerprints back in 1998. Three other states eventually adopted the practice. But two of them - California and Texas – ended fingerprinting last year. New York City remains the only place in the state that fingerprints food stamp recipients. Many non-profits serving low income New Yorkers agree with Cuomo and say more people will seek badly needed assistance if fingerprinting ends.
ERASMA BERAS-MONTICCIOLO: There's no doubt that there will be a rise.
RODRIGUEZ: Erasma Beras-Monticciolo is from the East River Development Alliance, a non-profit that administers food stamp applications. She says her group works with several populations that shun fingerprinting, including women recently released from prison.
BERAS-MONTICCIOLO: It's a continuous dialogue with them about, you know, why you should access these benefits, you know, what it's going to mean for yourself, you know, just to create some stability in your life.
RODRIGUEZ: But outside a food stamp office in Manhattan, food stamp recipient Oliver Briscoe said if people need food bad enough they will go through the process.
OLIVER BRISCOE: A person who is in need of food will embrace the fact of getting fingerprinted to keep themselves fed, to keep their families, well, unstarved.
RODRIGUEZ: Briscoe says he's disabled and he receives $200 a month in food stamps. He believes fingerprinting is the best way to make sure only the truly needy receive the benefit.
It's the same argument Mayor Michael Bloomberg makes. According to the city, in 2010 fingerprinting detected 1,900 duplicate food stamp cases. About 1.8 million people received food stamps that year. The catch saved taxpayers just over $5 million. The city is not able to say how many of those cases were fraud.
Russell Sykes, senior fellow at the Empire Center for New York State Policy, believes any amount of savings is important.
RUSSELL SYKES: Program integrity is equally important as program access. I mean, you're already seeing now the food stamp program being brought up in the context of national politics. And the more one can say that the program gets benefits to the right people with integrity, the better that program is.
RODRIGUEZ: Sykes also questions whether fingerprinting is stifling participation, given the recent rise in food stamp users. According to city statistics, since 2007 the number of food stamp recipients rose by more than 700,000 people. Nicole Cuffee was laid off a year ago and became one of those food stamp users. She says she felt stigmatized by being fingerprinted but went through with it anyway.
NICOLE CUFFEE: It's basically like when you go through central booking or something. You're getting booked and you feel like you're getting fingerprinted with one finger here and one finger thee, you know.
RODRIGUEZ: By the city's own estimates, there are more than 600,000 New Yorkers that are eligible for food stamps but who don't apply. That's a participation rate of 71 percent, just below the national average.
For NPR News, I'm Cindy Rodriguez in New York.
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