Food fright

Fingerprinting seen as deterrent to food aid

by Hugh Biggar
October 10, 2011
News & Review

Slightly more than half of the families eligible for federal food aid in Sacramento County receive it. But California could soon remove an unusual requirement that may be preventing those in need from receiving assistance.

California is one just three states to require applicants for federal food stamps, known in the state as Cal Fresh, to be fingerprinted. Assembly Bill 6 would end that requirement, and Gov. Jerry Brown has until October 9 to the sign the bill into law.

Although not entirely a black-and-white issue, the fingerprinting requirement is still seen as a major reason the number of Californians participating in the federal food aid program is low compared to other states. Researchers believe that fingerprinting scares off some would-be recipients, including undocumented immigrants whose American-born children are eligible for aid.

Similar to Sacramento County, roughly half of eligible Californians take part in federal food assistance, placing the state toward the bottom nationally (see “Lost supper,” SN&R Feature, June 30).

“We believe more people would be encouraged to apply if finger imaging was eliminated,” Caroline Danielson, a policy fellow with Public Policy Institute of California, told SN&R. “About 10 percent of people in California receive food stamps, which is huge, but elsewhere in the country it’s closer to 15 percent.”

As part of this, Danielson also co-authored a report for the PPIC in September that found eliminating fingerprint-imaging would raise participation in California by 7 percent, and cut administrative costs by 13 percent. (Although the number of caseloads would increase, the expense would be offset by the cost savings from reduced bureaucracy. California also has the second highest administrative costs in the nation.)

The findings match similar research by other organizations, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Enrollment would grow to about 3.75 million if Assembly Bill 6 [is approved],” Danielson said.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger initiated the fingerprint-imaging requirement in 2001 as a way to prevent people from filing multiple applications for aid from different state agencies. However, studies have since shown that there is no clear evidence that fingerprinting reduces fraud, and there are also other measures in place that reduce such risk.

“There are already all sorts of background checks through Social Security and the IRS among others that are pretty effective in preventing people from receiving duplicate aid,” Alexis Fernandez, a nutrition policy specialist with California Food Policy Association, explained to SN&R. She also stressed that fingerprinting addressed only the issue of multiple applications from the same person. Other scams, including selling or exchanging benefits for cash or other items, continue to exist.

“It comes with a caveat,” Danielson agreed. “It’s a mixed bag, and it’s still possible some people will receive multiple benefits. But this would be offset by getting people the supplemental help they need.”

In particular, Danielson’s research found that mixed households—those with adults and children—would especially benefit. According to her September report, nearly 10 percent of mixed households dropped out of the Cal Fresh program after the fingerprint-imaging requirement was added. The requirement’s wide reach, such as mandating that everyone 18 and older in a household be fingerprinted, contributed to the dropoff.

“Noncitizens may have been reluctant to enroll [due to fingerprint-imaging], even if their children were eligible,” Danielson said, pointing to other factors, such as the state’s large immigrant population, that have contributed to the drag on Cal Fresh participation.

At the same time, the need for supplemental food aid has grown, with a 33 percent increase in Cal Fresh enrollment between June 2009 and 2011. That need is also expected to increase even if the economy improves due to stagnant or declining incomes, and eliminating fingerprinting seen as a key way to meet that need.

“It would lead to a huge boost in enrollment,” CFPA’s Fernandez said.