Fingerprinting For Food Stamps Under Scrutiny The Obama administration may be trying to mount a case against digital finger-imaging of federal food assistance applicants, a practice four states are implementing in order to combat fraud. Anti-hunger workers say it discriminates against the country's poor.
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Fingerprinting For Food Stamps Under Scrutiny

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Fingerprinting For Food Stamps Under Scrutiny

Fingerprinting For Food Stamps Under Scrutiny

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More than 30 million people are getting federal food assistance, what used to be called food stamps. That's 10 percent of the population in this country. We're going to hear now about why some who are eligible for food assistance may not be applying.

Kaomi Goetz has this report.

KAOMI GOETZ: Angel Jean Seymore was a home health aide until a severe back injury forced her to stop working. The 36-year-old New York City woman applied for help to buy food under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Ms. ANGEL JEAN SEYMORE: I felt degraded. They treated me in a disgusting way. They did not care that I had a disability.

GOETZ: Seymore's gripe isn't about having to apply for the federal benefit. SNAP helps people whose income falls below 130 percent of the poverty line, and Seymore definitely needs extra help as she tries to get better to return to work. What got Seymore was having to give a digital fingerprint as part of the application. She says it felt like she was also giving up some of her dignity.

Ms. SEYMORE: I'm a U.S. citizen. I've been born and raised in the Bronx all my life. I have my identity in the Health Department and Social Security. And yet I'm being treated like I'm a criminal.

GOETZ: If she didn't live in New York City, it wouldn't have happened. That's because the rest of the state has opted out of the finger-imaging requirement. Advocates who work with many of the city's poor are frustrated.

Mr. JOEL BERG (Executive Director, New York City Coalition Against Hunger): It's as if the mayor is saying he thinks his own constituents are somehow uniquely criminal.

GOETZ: Joel Berg is executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. He says finger-imaging discriminates against people who can't physically come to an office and have it done, either because of work or disabilities. People often feel like it's a tracking system or they've done something wrong. And he says there are other ways to detect fraud, such as computer matching with Social Security numbers.

Mr. BERG: There's only one kind of fraud potentially captured by finger-imaging, and that's when a person actually creates a duplicate identity, as if they're in James Bond or something. It's preposterous. It's hard enough for an eligible person on the program to get the benefits.

GOETZ: An Urban Institute study found that finger-imaging deterred 4 percent from completing their application. Critics say that's tens of thousands of people. But New York City counters the practice has been one of the best weapons against fraud over the last decade.

Robert Doar is commissioner of the city's Human Resources Administration. While Doar hasn't seen the study, he says people aren't being discouraged from applying. He points to the nearly 300,000 more New Yorkers who received SNAP benefits in the last year.

Mr. ROBERT DOAR (Commissioner, Human Resources Administration, New York City): It is not an ink process like that would take place if you were in some criminal justice situation. It's easy. It's simple. It's fast, and the numbers prove our point.

GOETZ: Yet it puts New York City at odds with most of the rest of the country. Only Texas, California and Arizona also use finger-imaging. But a few weeks ago, Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon was in New York City, where he said the practice is under scrutiny.

Undersecretary KEVIN CONCANNON (Department of Agriculture): We are examining that whole question of the efficacy of it. Does it really do what it is alleged to do? And does it - my bigger concern is does it have an unintended consequence of dissuading people from coming forward who need the benefits?

GOETZ: Concannon added that if a state wanted to start the finger-imaging today, the Obama administration wouldn't approve it. Hunger workers say they're hopeful a rollback is coming. After all, they say, President Obama is the first U.S. president to have grown up in a household where food stamps meant food on the table.

For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz in New York.

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