Governor Cuomo has just announced that fingerprinting is no longer a requirement for food stamps applications. In a joint statement, Speaker Quinn and Council Member Palma said, “Governor Cuomo’s action is an enormous victory for New Yorkers in need, and for all those who have fought to put an end to the detrimental practice of finger imaging food stamp applicants.
The Governor’s announcement today will eliminate a senseless barrier that, for too long, has prevented tens of thousands of qualified New Yorkers from receiving the assistance they need to feed themselves and their families.”
It’s 1:00 p.m. on a sunny, cheery Monday. At the Westside Campaign Against Hunger (WSCAH) center at the corner of W. 86th St. and West End Avenue, though, the line of people by the door is anything but cheerful. William Farkas, 40, moves with the line. He’s ready to redeem about $40 worth of his food stamps to shop at the pantry hosted by the center. He’s hungry and hasn’t eaten all day. Yet, like everyone else in the line, he waits patiently for his turn. This is routine for him – ever since he applied for food stamps 10 years ago. He is stoic but there is a sense of despair, helplessness and resignation about him. “I feel like a loser for even being here,” he said.
Farkas is not alone. The recession is leaving a lot of hunger in its wake – rising levels of unemployment and poverty have made an increasing number of New Yorkers turn to the government for assistance. As of September 2011, data published by the the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) indicates that more than 1.8 million New Yorkers are part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as the food stamps program. Some, like Farkas, rely on food stamps alone, while others, like Terrica Glenn, 35, use them to supplement their income. Hear Glenn’s story in this video.
In September 2008, this number was 1.2 million. Numbers released by the WSCAH show a steady increase in the number of food stamps applicants visiting the center, across all age groups.
Food stamps applicants who visited the pantry at the Westside Campaign Against Hunger center. Source, Westside Campaign Against Hunger.
Stanley, 53, who did not want to give his fullname, was also shopping at the WSCAH center. He said, “I was brought up to believe that if I had a good mind and a good body, I could provide for myself. My parents lived from paycheck to paycheck, but there was always food on the table. I cannot promise this to my kids. I feel so inadequate for asking for help.” Stanley worked as a porter at a university and a hospital (he did not wish to name them) but was laid off both these jobs in the same week. With no job prospects at the moment, he had “no choice” but to apply for food stamps.
According to a testimony by Commisioner Robert Doar of HRA, the Bloomberg administration has had to deal with an “unprecedented caseload growth” in applications for food stamps. But that is not what is worrying City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and her colleague, Council Member Annabel Palma. In a press release dated October 12, Quinn cited a report prepared by the Urban Institute that an additional 30,000 New Yorkers are “deterred” from applying for food stamps each year. According to the report,they are deterred by the city’s requirement that applicants agree to be fingerprinted to establish eligibility.
"There is a stigma associated with fingerprint imaging," says David Pristin, Director of the Policy Division at the New York City Council. “Certain communities associate it with immigration or criminal justice issues.”
"I felt like I was being arrested all over again," recalled Farkas referring to the time he was fingerprinted for his application. Stanley said, "It was an invasion of my privacy. It was totally humiliating." Roxona Coronel, 37 and a mother of three, was resentful when her fingerprints were scanned. "Treat me like a person," she said in Spanish. "I am not an animal. People sign, animals are printed."
“Another deterring factor,” says Pristin, “is that it takes almost 5 hours for fingerprint imaging [waiting in line]. This is a problem for residents with children at home or who work on a per-hour basis.”
Recently, Texas and California joined 46 other states when they did away with fingerprint imaging. California rolled out fingerprint imaging systems in March 2000. However, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers SNAP, had listed California as a poorly performing state in the program. The federal government as the sponsor of the program, was concerned and this prompted an audit report in January 2003.
The report highlighted the fact, that in 1996, in Los Angeles county, out of the 137 cases, which were discontinued, 31 were for suspected duplicate-aid fraud. Of these, only eight were verified valid cases – amounting to six percent. A list of welfare-fraud cases posted on the Department of Social Services site indicates that most convictions for such cases were for providing false information about income to improve eligibility. Based on such facts, the report concluded that the state had been “remiss” in implementing the fingerprint imaging system before determining the true extent of fraud. Assembly Bill 6 was approved by the Governor in October 2011.
New York State dropped the requirement in 2007. Arizona and New York City are the only two jurisdictions that continue the practice.
On the heels of the bills passed in California and Texas, both in September 2011, Quinn and Palma introduced a bill, Intro 696, in October 2011 requiring HRA to provide a report on the amount spent on fingerprint imaging, the number of fraudulent applications detected and the rate of prosecution for such cases.
Then, in a hearing conducted on November 21 City Council hearing, Commisioner Doar testified the City spent $182,596 every year on fingerprint imaging. In 2009-10, he reported, 1,919 duplicate cases had initially been detected among food stamps applications. But several of these were due to human error such as oversight by caseworkers or problems with paperwork. Overall, he said fingerprint imaging prevented an average of $3 million a year in federal dollars from being misspent. “I would like to be clear, it is not about prosecuting individuals for fraud; it is about preventing and deterring fraud in the first place,” he said at the hearing.
Speaker Quinn disagrees. In a statement, she said, “Requiring food stamp applicants to submit to finger imaging to receive benefits is an ineffective way to detect fraud and wastes millions of dollars in taxpayer money each year. The City spends its own scarce tax dollars on a process that serves no public good.”
Regarding prosecution, an HRA spokesperson said, “When duplicates are found, they are removed without further investigation or referral to law enforcement.” He added further, “If actual fraud in any program is detected through program integrity measures or reported by witnesses, HRA investigates the matter thoroughly and works with the police department and the attorney general’s office to pursue the case to the full extent of the law.” However, when asked whether the suspected duplicates are scrutinized before or after they are removed, he declined to comment.
Councillor Palma believes the practice is “shameful.” “No one has ever been prosecuted for fraud,” she says. “There has been no follow-through; people are never reported.” She admits that in the context of the City’s budget, $180,600 is not a large expense. She views this as a waste of time and resources. “It can be invested [instead] in hiring staff, for example,” she says.
Most people in the line at WSCAH consider fingerprinting a part of the process. Michelle Alexis, 28, was “surprised” that she needed to be fingerprinted, but said she didn’t really mind. She went to the HRA East End Food Stamp Center in Harlem, as that was the most convenient location for her. She didn’t have to wait in line as she is disabled. “[The HRA official] called my name and I walked to a counter. There were other such counters too.” she says. “He instructed me.. hich finger I needed to put – thumb, forefinger and middle finger, left and right. They had a scanner where I needed to place my fingers. That’s it.” She was done in 30 minutes. Nelson Quiroga, 38, had a similar experience but also remembers that the operator was “rude.” He says in halting English, “I think he was rude because it was such a busy day – so many people there.”
Food stamps beneficiaries wait in line at the West Side Coalition Against Hunger kitchen. Photo / Rashmi Raman
As a Public Benefits Counselor at WSCAH, Esmeralda Perez has submitted 177 SNAP applications on behalf of clients since May 2011. She observes that applicants have not been complaining about fingerprint imaging even if they dislike it. “They are willing to overlook it because they have the need,” she says.
Interestingly, she says, undocumented adults are not eligible for SNAP, but their minor kids are. So, if an undocumented adult applies on behalf of her minor kids, she does not need to be fingerprinted. Only legal residents over 18 years need to undergo this process. Clients frequently ask her whether SNAP applications can affect their immigration status. “The short answer is, no, it doesn’t,” she smiles. Residents also have the right to waive fingerprint imaging under certain exemptions, such as disability and advanced age.
Perez says that, for her clients, waiting in line to be fingerprinted is not the most time consuming aspect about the application. In fact, more time is spent in ensuring that the applicant has all the required documentation. “It just takes me an hour to fill out the form online for a family of four,” she says, “if the client has all the required documents.” After submitting the form, she schedules a telephone appointment for the applicants with the HRA. She believes the application process is straightforward. Most applicants standing in line to shop at the pantry at WSCAH seem to agree with her.
Perez reports that some applicants complained to her about the HRA calling them up because of missing fingerprint images even in cases when they had already undergone the process. “We have heard of problems with the vendor that the HRA uses for fingerprint imaging,” she says. “Sometimes, HRA does not receive [the image] because of possible errors in the third-party software.”
Anthony Carroll regards fingerprint imaging as an additional form of security. Now 25 years old, he has been homeless since 2009 and has been on food stamps since then. His stepfather had received food stamps by fraudulently using Carroll’s ID when he was 13 – fingerprinting had not yet been implemented. Carroll was unaware of the scam until an official at HRA informed him while screening his recent, legitimate application. Fortunately for Carroll, “common sense prevailed” at the HRA office – they reasoned that a 13 year old kid couldn’t have succesfully defrauded the city of food stamps.”It felt good,” he says of the fingerprint imaging process. “No one will be able to take food stamps in my name anymore,” he smiles.
When asked about the alternative to fingerprint imaging, Council member Palma insisted that documentation including Social Security cards and other forms of identification should suffice. Joel Berg, Executive Director of the advocacy group New York City Coalition Against Hunger, believes the efficiency brought about by the “smart” online application system for food stamps is completely “obliterated” by fingerprint imaging. He is referring to Access NYC, an online application and screening system where New Yorkers can apply for various benefits, instead of manually filling out forms at one of HRA’s Food Stamps Center. “48 states match [identification] files on the computer, not fingerprints” he says. “Why can’t we?”
Celeste Sanchez, Program Director, Social Services,WSCAH “checks in” food stamps beneficiary Concita Sanchez using her Benefits card. Photo/Rashmi Raman.
Berg disputes that fingerprint imaging deters fraud. He testified at the November 21 hearing that fingerprint imaging is not the most effective way to detect fraud. He alleged that the most common occurrences of fraud are trafficking, which the USDA defines as “the illegal buying or selling of food stamp benefits for cash, drugs, weapons.” Other convictions have involved government employees faking cases, most notably, HRA employee Vanee Sykes creating more than 1000 fake food stamp cases. But a majority of the cases are about applicants who hide extra income. And none of these frauds can be detected by fingerprint imaging.
If fingerprint imaging is done away with, the next point to debate would be if the public would need reassurance that their applications are still, as Rosalyn Walker, 46, puts it, “good and safe.” Council member Palma says an educational campaign might help to create awareness about the security of using only identification documents for screening applications. Berg doesn’t see the need for a campaign, either. “They didn’t do anything in Texas,” he points out.
For a lot of people like Michelle Alexis, it doesn’t matter one way or the other. She said, “[Getting fingerprinted is] better than starving for sure. [But] if they remove it, that’s fine too.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has just awarded $29.5 million to the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx in an initiative to revamp the facilities. This is a big step for the market, Crain’s New York Business reports.
This is also a part of Gov. Cuomo’s promises during his campaign tweets City Hall News.
Econ. Dev. Councils award $29.5 million to revamp Bronx hunts point produce market, something Cuomo promised during campaign
The produce market is still short of $20 million to carry out all the planned renovations and repair.
“We still have a lot to do to get all the dollars needed,” to renovate the 44 year-old facility, said Sid Davidoff, a lawyer representing the produce businesses that comprise the facility.
Read more: http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20111209/SMALLBIZ/111209865#ixzz1gI3k6nWZ
Mayor Bloomberg welcomed this development. "We really do need to redo the produce market. It’s not competitive anymore," he said during his weekly radio show on WOR. He expressed his concerns about the accessibility of the market, especially in the face of competition with New Jersey.
"New Jersey has been very aggressive in offering monies and benefits to the vendors to move over to there," he said. "We can’t get into a bidding war, but we can make this as attractive as we can, and I think this would help us do that."
The Wall Street Journal reports that this award is part of a $200 million fund to encourage development projects in the state and improve job rates. Of these projects, the award to the Hunts Point Market is the largest.
Hunts Point reportedly delivers 20 percent of the total produce in the state.
An NY1 report quoted Denise Goodman of M&R Tomato Distribution Inc.
I believe one out of every four families will be having some kind of produce item that came from this market
According to the report, the market did brisk business during the Thanksgiving holiday.
Whether Hunts Point will get all the money that it needs is stil an unanswered question, but this award is a step in the right direction.
A report in The New York Times comments on the proliferation of coffee shops in NYC.
Sam Lewontin of Everyman Espresso says that coffee shops are in a state of flux. He believes that in the end, there will be mainly two types of coffee shops in NYC. The first kind would sell inexpensive coffee. The second would be like to coffee equivalent of a cocktail bar. These coffee shops would offer experiences like ”cupping” (think wine tasting but for coffee).
Coffee could become a luxe item in the next 5 years, he says. And the coffee business needs to figure the next sustainable operating model.
Till then, enjoy your coffee at your favorite coffee shop. While it is still around.