Does Fingerprinting Food Stamp Recipients Save Money?


What do New York City and Arizona have in common? No, this is not a trick question; there is one thing: currently, they are the only jurisdictions in the country that require food stamp recipients to register their fingerprints in an electronic database. California and Texas recently lifted their fingerprinting requirements.

Not surprisingly, this has touched off a debate over social utility and costs in New York. Proponents say that the resulting fingerprint database saves the city millions of dollars a year in duplicate fraud. Last year, the Human Resources Administration said it found 1,900 cases of duplicate applications for 2010, with savings of nearly $5.3 million.

Detractors claim this estimate is unproven and that fingerprinting keeps a certain amount of needy people out of the system through intimidation. They also point out that the process costs New York $187,364 a year to implement. Research from the Urban Institute, as cited by New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, estimates that around 30,000 people are deterred from getting food stamps because of the fingerprinting requirement, which she claims costs low-income families (and the city’s economy) $54 million a year in federal benefits.

One wonders, though, if this kind of exclusion isn’t part of the calculation going on. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a staunch proponent of the program, declaring the current rate of food stamp fraud to be an unbeatable zero percent.

Modern fingerprinting has a long and fascinating history, from Babylon to ancient China, but the idea of keeping a database of fingerprints for widespread identification got its start in British Calcutta, first as contract signatures and then as a way to make sure that Indian civil service pensions weren’t collected by family members after a pensioner died. The man responsible for this bureaucratic breakthrough was Sir William Herschel, who in 1916 wrote his own treatise, The Origin of Fingerprinting, on his work. He writes:

…fraudulent attempts did still come to light.  Signatures were still denied personations in presenting false deeds did take place, either to swindle, or, in one case, to fabricate an alibi.  As long as I was at Hooghly I was quite satisfied that no will or other deed registered there with the new safeguard would ever be repudiated by the actual executant.

Herschel goes on to lament that after he left India, a man came into the Registrar offices having “cut off the joints of his fingers, hoping to defeat justice by corrupting the witness.”

Hopefully the 30,000 intimidated hungry of New York won’t have to resort to such measures for a meal.



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  1. Mike B says:

    Why not split the difference and use a less invasive technique such as facial recognition? While not the most accurate form of biometric it can at least serve as a good screen for potential duplicates that can trigger a more exhaustive investigation. States are already doing this with drivers’ license photos (although somewhat insensitively to the high false positive rate) and there’s no any reason they could do the same with welfare benefits. Furthermore facial recognition doesn’t have the same stigma as fingerprinting and wouldn’t even need a specific collection event, just ambient cameras. Therefore the applicants wouldn’t even be salient of the process and therefore not deterred by it.

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    • John says:

      Someone will file suit claiming that their religion believes taking their photo steals their soul, and the ACLU will represent them.

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 11 Thumb down 10
    • G.E. Hoostal says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • Mike B says:

        Relying on altruism in the form of either religious or secular charity (which as you pointed out may not even exist yet) is not a viable plan to ensure that everyone in our country had food security. You’d have just as much luck doing a rain dance to get manna to fall from the sky!! Yes food stamps are more often than not an income support rather than a direct preventer of starvation, but don’t forget that if you tossed millions of families out of the stores and into the food pantries and back-of-store dumpsters there may not be windfall to go around.
        Before you act all self-righteous about people mooching or sponging and how they should go get a job just remember that A) if most of these people could get a job they would and and B) starving people don’t just go away, they get stabby. Let’s see how you feel when your throat’s slit and a mob of starving poor people are ransacking your kitchen. It’s not a good idea to pick a fight with the unemployed because you actually have to go out and leave your house to go to work. They have all the time in the world to get you or your stuff when you are most vulnerable so stop acting all smug and just cut them a check. It ends up being a lot cheaper than the alternative.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        This has never happened.

        You, um, don’t know much about modern American history, do you?

        The food stamps program exists basically because of television. The food stamps program exists because the “new media” of television news went into desperately poor areas and broadcast images of American children who were every bit as malnourished and starving to death as the ones you might remember seeing from Ethiopia in the early 1980s.

        Bloated bellies, stick-thin limbs, mental retardation, and baldness due to insufficient calories and insufficient protein is what Americans got from charity-only hunger programs in this country. People actually were starving to death, right here in the “golden age” of mid-20th-century America.

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  2. John says:

    If you would rather starve than endure the application process, you either have reason to avoid the authorities or you need more help than just food stamps. Why would anyone rather starve than be fingerprinted? Oh, felony record, nonpayment of child support, attempted fraud, illegal aliens, etc.

    As for the cost, implementing a system that costs $187,364 to save $5.3 million seems like a pretty good plan.

    I get the utility of spending federal money in a local economy, but we have to remember that the food stamp money comes from our taxes, and borrowing from China. We are paying for it, with interest.

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    • Mike B says:

      While people might not starve themselves that says nothing for the food they provide to their children or other dependents. They might also settle for cheaper foods that might prevent one actually starving, but will eventually land one in the hospital with an expensive chronic condition that will end up being charged to the taxpayer.

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  3. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  4. frankenduf says:

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    • Jeff says:

      Every person who gets a “Wall Street” job with a firm of any decent size is fingerprinted. I was. I didn’t feel humiliated.

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      • pawnman says:

        Agreed. I was fingerprinted when I got a job in a bank vault, and again when I joined the military. It didn’t make me feel like a criminal or like I was being humiliated.

        I also support drug testing for welfare checks. Again, I was drug tested before getting my job at the bank and joining the military, and as a member of the military I am still subject to regular drug tests. I don’t feel like I’m being treated as a criminal or humiliated by it, but perhaps it’s because I don’t use drugs.

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  5. vanderleun says:

    What a good, good person you are, Gilman.

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  6. Sean says:

    Being someone who works in the social services and deals with programs like SNAP (aka Food Stamps) TANF, and all sorts other benefit programs, I have mixed feelings about this.

    Currently you are required to show your birth certificate in order to apply for many programs. While this can prevent fraud it also prevents many of the poor from getting assistance. Those who cannot afford to go to the vital records office and pay $25 to get a new copy, or even the elderly who may not even know when and where they were born are turned away.

    Many of these persons would probably jump at the chance to have finger prints rather than carry around difficult to replace documents. It is much harder to forge fingerprints than documents.

    Even drug addicts and dead beat dads need to eat. Rather than reform the access to the program, we should reform the program itself. WIC requires health checks of mother and child and you can only get certain foods. SNAP requires no such evaluation and you can spend it all on potato chips if you wanted. If the program is about making sure people did not starve then we should focus on nutrition not fraud.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I think that WIC is a model program that ought to be expanded.

      It’s true that it’s complicated. You can’t use WIC money to buy anything that doesn’t meet their standards for nutrition and value, and the difference between “baby food that’s healthy” and “baby food that really ought to be illegal for everyone because it contains added sugar” isn’t always obvious, and WIC only pays for the healthy ones. The checkers at the local grocery store say that a WIC purchase often takes them half an hour to ring up. But I’d love to see SNAP replaced by WIC, and for both to have somewhat higher income eligibility and somewhat higher benefits levels.

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      • MKT1 says:

        Its not the actually act of fingerprinting, its the fact that we’re trusting this personal information with who knows who and it is unique. Identity theft happens all the time who’s to say it won’t happen with our fingerprints?

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    • MKT! says:

      I fully agree with the idea of changing the basic programs to accomodate peoples needs. I’ve worked briefly in human services as well and am a single parent. At my current job, the higher ups are wanting to use fingerprinting too but there are things with the current program that could be improved to makes things better before we start creating more hoops to jump though.

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