A debate has broken out at New York's highest levels of government over whether to continue fingerprinting food stamp recipients — and as the governor and mayor differ on the issue, so do food stamp recipients themselves.
During his State of the State speech last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo said he wanted to end the practice in part because he believes it deters people from applying for help. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said fingerprinting food stamp recipients helps guard against fraud.
"I felt like I was going through the system like a criminal," said Leon McPherson, who was leaving a food stamp center on Third Avenue near 125th Street this week after he had just gotten his finger scanned.
But he said he was willing to go through the process because his family badly needs the help. He's unemployed and his wife doesn't have steady work.
McPherson said he knows others who avoid food stamps because they don’t want to be fingerprinted: "They feel like it’s degrading," he said. "Everybody don’t want to be fingerprinted because being fingerprinted means being tagged with something wrong."
The city says the process is meant to catch duplicate food stamp cases that are either honest mistakes or fraud. According to the Human Resources Administration, in 2010 just over 1900 duplicate cases were found saving taxpayers $5.3 million. There were more than 1.8 million food stamp recipients that year.
"If you’re going to be afraid to be fingerprinted that means you have something to hide," said Linda Fernandez, who is unemployed and receives food stamps. "I don’t have nothing to hide so I don’t mind".
But her friend, Linda Rodriguez, said her son refuses to get food stamps because the process makes him feel like a criminal even though she said he needed the help "bad, real bad." She said he has a new baby and lost his job at a factory.
Others said the real fraud occurs when certain bodega owners give patrons cash in exchange for food stamps — a scam that fingerprinting cannot detect.
"Here's my card. I got so much food stamps. How much cash do I get?" said a man outside the center who would only identify himself as Frank, indicating how a transaction might play out.
The United States Department of Agriculture licenses retailers and is responsible for investigating retailer fraud. The agency says it's aware of the scam and prosecutes retailers who engage in it.
New York City is the only locality in the state that finger prints food stamp recipients.
Since his state of the state address last week, Cuomo has not released details on how he plans to end fingerprinting.