ANNAPOLIS – A Maryland lawmaker who wants to fingerprint welfare recipients said the program could ultimately save the state $15 million a year in welfare fraud.
But opponents are wary of a system that they said would be used to track the poor.
“Anytime you want to reduce fraud that’s good,” said Ann Ciekot, deputy director for Action for the Homeless Inc. “But what do you usually think of when you hear fingerprints? You think of criminals.
“People want to criminalize poverty and welfare,” she said.
But Sen. Leonard Teitelbaum, D-Montgomery, said his bill is aimed at helping more needy people, not mistreating them.
He said his “finger-imaging” pilot program would prevent people from getting welfare benefits under more than one name or collecting benefits illegally from more than one town or state program.
Finger-imaging matches digital images of a welfare recipient’s fingers against a computer database. Teitelbaum said information in this database would only be used to prevent welfare fraud.
If the pilot program works and is implemented statewide, it could save the state about $15 million, said Teitelbaum, although he could not say how much the program might cost to set up.
His bill is set for a hearing Feb. 19 in the Senate Finance Committee.
As of June, 11 states had turned to such systems to prevent welfare fraud, he said. The New York Department of Social Services reported that within the first 18 months of operating statewide it saved more than $150 million.
But there was more behind New York’s savings than just its finger-imaging program, said Steve Thompson, assistant director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson State University.
“The state (New York) hired more than 500 social workers to go into the homes of those receiving aid to do personal investigations,” said Thompson, who helped with the finger- imaging project there. “That is what helped to save New York lots of money.”
He questioned whether finger-imaging is necessary in Maryland, which he said is already cutting fraud through other welfare reform efforts.
Harry Bosk, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, said the state saved $1 million last year with fraud prevention measures, up from $700,000 the year before.
But Theresa Westcott, a public information officer for the New York Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, said finger-imaging is a concept worth investigating.
“It definitely can change things and the main thing is that it can be a deterrent,” she said.
New York leases finger-imaging equipment for $10 million a year, fingerprinting applicants for the Home Relief and Aid to Families with Dependent Children programs and those renewing their eligibility.
After the New York program began, Westcott said 44,000 people either refused to be fingerprinted or did not show up for their appointments. Many of those folks probably worked illegally, she said.
“What happens is double-dippers … are monitored and it works,” Westcott said. “The people aren’t hunted like criminals and the fingerprints are not used by the police. The records are private.”
Ciekot said it does not matter if the prints are taken with ink or on a computer screen, the idea sets up the same psychological barriers that mandatory drug testing would.
“We don’t think the amount of fraud in the state is worthy of these kinds of measures,” she said. “It would be adding to the stigma that already exists for people who use the system.”
Fraud is a possibility in almost any transaction, said Lynda Meade, a director at Catholic Social Services in Baltimore, but few businesses take the drastic step of fingerprinting customers.
“Why single out just one group?” she asked. “I have a credit card, I don’t use a PIN or anything when I use it, and no one has my fingerprints. The card that food stamp recipients use is like a Visa, too.”
One of the people who would be affected by the bill is Annette Ware, a Montgomery County resident who said she would give up her benefits if the law required her to produce a set of prints.
“We’re trying to do the things that we need to do to help ourselves and our children,” Ware said. “The people who should be printed are the people on the streets selling dope, robbing and committing other crimes.”
Ware, who was in Annapolis Thursday to rally for Action For the Homeless and the Maryland Food Committee, said fingerprinting would send a negative image to the public.
“Just because I’m poor doesn’t make me bad,” she said. “I don’t want to be on welfare and, I do want a decent job so that I can support my son who lives with my mother now.”
But Noreen Dockins of Baltimore, who was on welfare for four years, said she would do she had to if she needed welfare again to care for her two children.
“What else am I to do,” but agree to fingerprinting to get benefits, said Dockins, who is “strecthing every dime” now to make ends meet.