A new study provides support for a bill on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk that would stop the state's policy of fingerprinting food stamp recipients.
California's policy is meant to deter fraud, but it keeps people from seeking aid and creates high administrative costs, according to a study this month by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Participation in California's food stamp program, CalFresh, is much lower than in other states but would rise about 7 percent if the state stopped fingerprint requirements. The state's administrative costs for the program, which are some of the highest in the country, would drop about 13 percent, according to the study.
"It’s a win-win," said Caroline Danielson, a study co-author. "It’s the biggest policy lever that we could identify."
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Legislation eliminating the fingerprinting process – AB 6 by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, D-Arleta – is waiting for Brown's signature. It passed the Legislature despite opposition from Republicans, who argued that the requirement deters fraud, making it harder to get food stamps from multiple jurisdictions or using multiple identities.
"I’m not sure there’s a reasonable argument to say we want to make it easier for more people to get on the welfare system," said Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee. "We want to make it easier for people to get off the welfare system."
In 2007, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill, saying it would provide "an opportunity for increased fraud."
The California District Attorneys Association lobbied against the bill this year and asked Brown for a veto.
"Why are we getting rid of a deterrent that hopefully keeps people from seeking duplicate benefits?" said Cory Salzillo, director of legislation for the association. "Let's make sure that when the government says certain people should be getting (benefits) that the ones that aren’t entitled to them aren’t accessing them illegally."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture frowns on fingerprinting. Department Undersecretary Kevin Concannon wrote to states last year that "there are serious concerns that finger imaging requirements may be a barrier to participation among many of the hard to reach eligible populations who wish to enroll in the Program." Concannon encouraged states to use other, more cost-effective methods to detect fraud.
The USDA estimates that only 50 percent of eligible Californians get food stamps. Only Wyoming has a lower rate.
"As long as people who are eligible aren’t receiving benefits, it’s very likely that there are Californians that are going hungry," said Alexis Fernandez of California Food Policy Advocates, which sponsored the legislation.
Some people may feel "criminalized" by the fingerprinting process, Fernandez said. Others who are illegal immigrants may have eligible children who are U.S. citizens but may be afraid to sign them up.
"People are wary of such things," she said.
Danielson studied the only other parts of the country that fingerprint for food stamps – Arizona, Texas and New York City – and found no evidence that fingerprinting increased the detection of fraud. (Texas' legislature voted to end fingerprinting this year.) But the study noted that it "cannot rule out the possibility" that part of the forecasted increase in food stamp applicants, if fingerprinting is discontinued, would be fraudulent.
It's hard to measure, Danielson said, because "we don’t know who is not applying."
That's an argument for keeping the fingerprinting system, said Assemblyman Jones. "We don’t know how many people it’s stopping from even trying to commit fraud against the system," he said. "Once they ... stop requiring the fingerprints, then those people will no longer be intimidated."
A 2009 state audit criticized the Department of Social Services for not accurately determining the cost-effectiveness of the fingerprinting system, which it said costs $5 million a year. The department defended its system, pointing out that Arizona's system reportedly saves $10 million a year by deterring fraud.
The state auditor responded that the system "may not be as beneficial as Social Services asserts," noting that it identified a "relatively small number of instances" of fraud – 845 cases between 2000 and the 2009 audit.
A Department of Social Services spokesman declined to comment.