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Food stamp fingerprinting ensnares thousands of applicants

New York City's unique practice of screening recipients leaves qualified candidates without benefits

Margaret Perry and her daughter lost food stamps when a fingerprint couldn't be found. Photo: Nat Rudarakanchana

Margaret Perry had all the necessary papers to reapply for food stamps. Or so she thought.

The 55-year-old and her daughter Kimberly stood in line last June at the Food Stamp Center in Harlem. After a nearly five-hour wait, they had their index fingers electronically scanned and photos taken.

Two weeks later, Perry received a letter in the mail from the city Human Resources Administration (HRA): It said that to receive benefits, her daughter needed to prove that she had been at the center that day.

But HRA — the city agency overseeing public assistance — doesn’t issue receipts to prove that applicants have shown up at a center, or that they’ve been fingerprinted. And if one person in a household is not finger-imaged, everyone can be disqualified. Perry ended up enlisting a public benefits advocate from the Urban Justice Center to help restore her household’s food stamps.

Experiences like Perry’s reflect a collision of staffing cutbacks at the agency, the city’s attempts to crack down on fraud and surging numbers of New Yorkers seeking public assistance. Statewide, nearly 6,000 households were denied or cut off from food stamps because of finger imaging problems between January 2009 and July 2010, the nonprofit Empire Justice Center found in an analysis of public records.

“They put me through a wringer for months,” Perry said. During an appeals process known as a “fair hearing” – which lasted nearly six months – Perry couldn’t pay the rent on her East Harlem apartment, and she was forced to make rounds at local food pantries to feed her two children.

This week, four state senators from New York City – Daniel Squadron, Liz Krueger, Tom Duane and Kevin Parker – have moved for a hearing on a bill that would forbid any requirement for finger-scans as a condition of receceiving food stamps.”This nonsense policy doesn’t have significant value as an anti-fraud measure,” said Krueger, who added she hoped Gov. Cuomo would pass an executive order to stop fingerprinting, because Senate Republicans are likely to oppose the bill. “Everybody who’s ever asked the city to document the fraud cases never get any answers.”

New York State began requiring food stamp applicants to be finger-imaged in 1998. Today, only New York City still demands a finger scan from all applicants for food stamps, though cash benefit recipients statewide must also still go through the scan. The fingerprints are used as a fraud-prevention measure to ensure that applicants are who they claim to be and that individual food stamp recipients don’t claim multiple benefits. Finger-imaging is designed to “prevent us from spending money we shouldn’t be,” said HRA spokesman Nick Scorza. “It’s not meant to be used to arrest people.”

Technical glitches and administrative errors are resulting in denied or delayed benefits. Lori McNeil, a research and policy director at the Urban Justice Center, said finger imaging has triggered what she calls an “epidemic of errors surrounding the receipt of public benefits.”

Under a $28.9 million contract with the state, fingerprinting of New York City’s food-stamp applicants is handled by California-based biometric identification company, 3M Cogent, Inc. Eighty or 90 Cogent employees process the scans on site at city welfare offices, said 3M Cogent New York program manager Dan Fineman.

Applicants receive no record of having been finger-imaged, leaving them without evidence that they have complied with the requirement. At a city Food Policy Task Force meeting earlier this month, an HRA representative said the agency has asked the company to issue receipts during the process of collecting images of fingerprints, but that the company refused because it is not part of the contract.

“We’re not allowed to handle the formal paperwork for individual recipients,” Fineman told The New York World. “We work for the state, so we do what they tell us to do. All we do is take the biometric.”

Last year, 1.8 million New Yorkers received food stamps, a 5 percent increase over the year before. While the number of recipients has dipped slightly since October, throngs of applicants continue to arrive at the city’s public assistance centers, and some must wait in line for hours. Things got so bad last in Brooklyn November that the fire department stopped people from entering the building altogether.

Those already enrolled in the program must go back to re-register their children once they turn 18, which is where Margaret Perry and her daughter got caught in the cogs. When applicants are turned down for public assistance, they can appeal, as Perry did, under the fair hearing process.

HRA loses virtually all of these cases. The Empire Justice Center found that of the New York City fair hearings that took place between November 2010 and October 2011 and involved problems with finger imaging for food stamps, 97 percent were won by the applicant. (Fair hearing decisions from November 2010 on are available online from the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, with petitioners’ names redacted.)

“This is causing people to miss out on food stamps for a couple months,” said Sydney Cespedes, a legal advocate for the Urban Justice Center who helped Perry win her case. “Fair hearings are a huge waste of time and, more importantly, the city’s money.”

The Bloomberg administration appears to disagree. Last month, echoing demands from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio and other city elected officials, Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to abolish the city’s finger imaging requirement, which is made possible through a special waiver from the state. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg has demanded that New York City continue to scan applicants’ fingers, arguing that imaging helps deter fraud and save taxpayer dollars.

The Human Resources Administration has not, however, provided details on the number of fraud cases the finger-imaging actually catches. HRA has only been willing to disclose is the number of duplications caught – 1,919 in 2010. It’s unclear how many cases of duplication are cases of intentional fraud, and how many are mistakes generated by HRA. Asked by the City Council in November how many duplicate applications resulted in fraud referrals to law enforcement, HRA commissioner Robert Doar testified: “It’s a handful. It’s less than 10.”

In the last four years, 700,000 New York City residents have newly qualified for and received food stamps, according to HRA. Agency staffing, meanwhile, has not kept up with the flood of applications. Deputy commissioner Patricia Smith testified last month that the agency’s worker to case ratio was one to 852 at the end of 2011. In 2007, that ratio was one to 549.

Depending on a family’s size and need – maximum income is about $2,000 a month for a household of three – it takes the HRA between 30 and 45 days from the time an application is submitted to begin providing benefits. In some cases, the wait can be shortened to five business days, provided applicants can demonstrate immediate need.

The typical three-person household enrolled in the food stamp program in New York City receives $467 in benefits each month. That money is crucial for Perry, who must carefully time her grocery shopping to coincide with monthly injections of funds into her account. 

Without help from Cespedes, Perry said, she would likely still be mired in the fair hearing process. “I thought the system should be better,” Perry said. “But who am I to say how to run stuff?”

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