Soundings

Fighting Welfare Fraud
Summer 1994

“Finger-imaging” is a form of fingerprinting that uses an electronic scanner instead of an inkpad. Local and state governments in New York State and elsewhere are considering finger-imaging welfare recipients in order to catch people collecting benefits in more than one jurisdiction. Cities and counties that have tried finger-imaging claim spectacular savings in welfare costs, while critics say there is no way to tell whether the reduced caseloads are actually due to scared-off welfare cheats.

Two upstate New York counties, Rockland and Onondaga, electronically fingerprinted applicants for Home Relief, the state’s welfare program for single adults without children. The state Department of Social Services noted a 15 percent drop in the rolls for both counties, saving $600,000 during 18 months. The department said finger-imaging could save $46 million a year if expanded statewide. Later, however, it emerged that the majority of the case closures were for reasons unrelated to finger-imaging. Critics also said there was no evidence that any of those who refused to be fingerprinted were actually double-dippers—though no one would be expected to apply for benefits in both counties, which are 250 miles apart. The state has expanded the program to include ten additional counties, but not New York City.

Los Angeles County, which instituted a fingerprinting program in 1991, says it saved $4.5 million during the first six months. And in New York, there is strong evidence that double-dipping is a real problem. In a March crackdown on fare-beaters on the PATH subway connecting Manhattan and New Jersey, officials caught 425 Newark residents carrying welfare cards for both New York and New Jersey.

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