10/17/2011 10:46 am ET | Updated Dec 17, 2011

We Need to Change New York City's Discriminatory Food Stamp Application Process

By Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, Council General Welfare Chair Annabel Palma and New York City Coalition Against Hunger Executive Director Joel Berg

It's not easy asking for help. But in these tough economic times, more New Yorkers than ever need an extra helping hand to keep their families healthy and fed. For many people, this assistance comes in the form of food stamps. These supplemental benefits, made available to those in need through our federally funded but locally managed public assistance programs, may be the only thing keeping a working-class family from an empty dinner table. These benefits greatly reduce the strain on the city's 1,200 food pantries and soup kitchens, which are unable to keep up with the growing demand.

Food stamps are an invaluable resource that connects marginalized people, the working poor and those on the border of economic distress from going over the edge. But for too many New Yorkers, the city's public assistance application process serves as a hindrance that keeps eligible applicants from receiving the assistance they qualify for.

Current New York City regulations require people who are legally eligible for food stamps to go to a City Human Resources Administration office to submit electronic fingerprints before their application is processed. This cumbersome requirement means people in low-wage jobs and job training programs must take time off and lose a day's pay or work training to meet the standards presently in place. Without the extra finger imaging requirement, most would be able to avoid the time and transportation expense of an office visit by submitting their applications by mail or online.

Time and time again, it has been shown that using finger imaging to detect benefit fraud is an ineffective method of identifying falsified applications. Just last week, California Governor Jerry Brown eliminated his states' fingerprint requirements, leaving New York City and Arizona as the only two places in the country that continue to use finger imaging as an eligibility requirement to receive public food stamp assistance. On the heels of the bipartisan actions that have done away with finger imaging in California and Texas, it is time for New York City to follow suit and end this detrimental practice once and for all.

Continuing to require struggling New Yorkers to submit to finger imaging is an impractical obstacle that has kept as many as 30,000 eligible applicants from enrolling in a public assistance program that would help alleviate their hardship. This system is, at best, a process that wastes hundreds of thousands of New York City tax dollars each year to detect fraud that can be more easily detected other ways, and at worst, an unconscionable roadblock that has kept $54 million in federal funds that would support local businesses and our economy from New York City and the people who need it.

Now is the time for change. Here in New York City, out of a total of 278,225 approved applications in 2008, just .35 percent of them were duplicates -- and it remains unclear if those duplicates were fraudulent or the result of administrative error. Finger imaging hurts New York's neediest by discouraging eligible people from applying for benefits, either from fear, the inability to take time off from work or other responsibilities, or the reluctance to participate in a system that has traditionally been associated with criminals.

We call on Mayor Bloomberg and the administration to end to this practice now. This week, the Council will introduce legislation that will hold the Human Resources Administration accountable for its finger imaging practice by requiring HRA to report on the number of people subject to finger imaging each year, the number of fraudulent cases detected and referred to for criminal prosecution as a result of finger imaging, and on just how much money is spent to uphold these wasteful regulations. We are certain the answer will be too much, for too little.

Food stamp applicants go through a thorough and rigorous process without the additional burden of submitting finger prints to qualify for public assistance. Now is the time to finally put an end to this system and redirect our resources where they are needed most -- to making the lives of New Yorkers in need a little easier.