By Karen DeWitt, New York State Public Radio Capital Bureau Chief
Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich intends it as an insult when he calls President Barack Obama, the “food stamp President.” Governor Andrew Cuomo seems not to fear being called the food stamp governor — he’s proposing ways more New Yorkers in need can access the federal program.
Governor Cuomo, in his State of the State speech, said he wants to end what he calls the “stigma” of requiring that New Yorkers who need food stamps be fingerprinted before becoming eligible for benefits.
The governor says it’s “unacceptable” that one in six children in the state are not getting enough to eat. His proposal drew among the most enthusiastic responses at the speech.
“Stop fingerprinting for families with children for food,” said Cuomo, to applause. “Don’t make a child go to bed hungry because your government wants to come up with a fraud program that requires fingerprinting.”
Linda Phelan Bopp, with the anti-hunger advocacy group Hunger Solutions, says the governor is on the right track.
“We could not be happier,” Phelan Bopp said.
Phelan Bopp says New York State has one of the lowest food stamp participation rates in the nation, with just 68% of those eligible actually signing up for the program, and she believes part of the reason is the fingerprinting requirement.
“There’s a presumption that you’ve done something wrong,” she said. “And being hungry is not a crime.”
Requiring fingerprinting for welfare and related benefits became popular in states in the 1990’s, as an attempt to cut down on welfare fraud. But in the present day, only two states, New York and Arizona, still have the fingerprinting requirement on the books.
A recent poll by Siena College found that New Yorkers, though, are split on whether finger imaging for food stamps are a good idea. Phelan Bopp says what people might not know is that fingerprinting as fraud detection is costly, requiring machinery and staff to run it at county social service offices across the state. She says the state already has a very rigorous application process to help prevent fraud.
Anti hunger advocates are also pleased that Cuomo added $1 million dollars in his budget to a food stamp outreach program, which helps those eligible to sign up for the benefits.
Phelan Bopp says $1.7 million dollars spent in community outreach last year drew down $84 million federal dollars, which she says is an excellent rate of return on the investment.