Governor Andrew Cuomo announced today that he is ending a controversial policy that requires food stamp applicants to be fingerprinted — a move that has pitted him squarely against Mayor Mike Bloomberg. The news today is also one that puts Bloomberg in direct opposition with City Council Speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn (and a handful of other local politicians).
At the center of the debate is the policy that requires all food stamp applications and recipients in New York State to be fingerprinted, which the governor, along with a group of advocates, says creates a stigma around receiving welfare, slows down the process, and creates barriers to reducing hunger. But Bloomberg, who butted heads with Cuomo on the policy back in January, has repeatedly defended fingerprinting, arguing that it stops New Yorkers from abusing the benefits and saves the city millions of dollars by stopping fraudulent recipients.
Today, the back-and-forth is on again with the news from Cuomo’s office that the state is moving to simplify the application process by eliminating fingerprinting.
Cuomo noted in the release today that 30 percent of New Yorkers eligible for food stamps, which accounts for over 1.4 million people, do not receive them, which he said leaves $1 billion in federal funds unclaimed every year — a problem, which he said would be mitigated by his plan to eliminate the requirement.
His proposal is being filed today and is available for a 45-day public comment period before its finalized — at which point finger imaging would no longer be required across the state (currently, counties can get waivers to be exempted).
The city was quick to defend the policy today.
In a statement sent to the Voice this afternoon, HRA Commissioner Robert Doar — who earlier this year clashed with HIV/AIDS advocates — said, “We’ve found that finger imaging identifies potential duplicate payments and prevents fraud, which saved more than $35 million over the last decade in a program that now provides services for 1.8 million New Yorkers annually…We remain committed to doing everything we can, consistent with state and federal regulations, to protect the integrity of the food stamp program.”
But the governor has the authority under state law to change this regulation without any legislation, and the policy change would of course apply to New York City. So it seems there’s not much Bloomberg and the HRA could really do to oppose it.
Meanwhile, a handful of politicians sent out statements praising Cuomo. Notably, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has struggled at times to distance herself from Bloomberg as she prepares for her race to replace him, applauded the move today, calling it “an enormous step forward to end the stigmatization of poverty,” in a joint statement with Annabel Palma, the City Council’s General Welfare Committee chair. Their statement said: “Governor Cuomo’s announcement that food stamp applicants in New York City will no longer be subjected to finger imaging sends the clear message to the tens of thousands of qualified New Yorkers who have been deterred from applying for assistance that receiving food stamps does not make you a criminal.” It’s a stance that puts her clearly in opposition to Bloomberg, in the same week that she and the City Council overrode the mayor’s veto on wage legislation, paving the way for a courtroom battle.
State Senator Daniel Squadron, who has sponsored legislation that would end the practice of finger-imaging, also unsurprisingly praised Cuomo, calling the program a waste of local tax dollars that makes it more difficult for people to access food.
And Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, another mayoral hopeful, used the news today as an opportunity to more directly slam Bloomberg, saying in a statement that he was glad the policy shift would stop City Hall.
He wrote: “Thanks to Governor Cuomo, children in our city will no longer go to bed hungry because of a broken and punitive policy. Today’s announcement marks the end of City Hall’s ideological hang-up on fingerprinting for food and the beginning of a new commitment to expand access to food stamps. I applaud the Governor for delivering on his promise.”