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Governments Abandon Fingerprinting for Food Stamps

Most states and cities stopped requiring that recipients be fingerprinted because it was costly and slowed the application process. New York City and Arizona are the last jurisdictions that still do it.

A decade ago, several states and localities required food stamp recipients to pass a fingerprint test. At least eight states and a handful of cities at one time required fingerprinting as a way to prevent duplicate applications and curb fraud.

Starting next month, however, only two jurisdictions will still have fingerprint requirements on the books -- Arizona and New York City. Texas ended the practice earlier this year, and a recently passed California law ending fingerprinting will take effect Jan. 1.

Why the shift? For one thing, critics say fingerprinting is too costly for governments and has never been a proven deterrent to fraud. Moreover, they argue, the requirement scares off many would-be applicants in need of assistance. As unemployment and the lagging economy have added record numbers of Americans to the rolls for assistance programs, states say that doing away with fingerprinting will help them process applications more quickly, saving money in staff resources and delivering help more quickly.

In New York, officials are at odds over whether fingerprinting should remain in place. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn says the requirement deters some 30,000 low-income residents from accessing the program, depriving them of $54 million in federal benefits. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg remains a staunch advocate of the program, which, according to the city’s Human Resources Administration, helped identify 1,900 cases of duplicate applicants and saved almost $5.3 million last year.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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