By Making It Harder on Hungry People, Texas Loses Out

June 11, 2010 § 1 Comment

by David Davenport, President & CEO

As we face a budget shortfall of tremendous proportions, I have a suggestion for lawmakers: Eliminate the finger imaging of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) applicants. We can save dollars and stimulate our economy. And we can preserve the dignity of people hit especially hard by the economic downturn.

Proponents of finger imaging will tell you it prevents SNAP fraud. But an independent UT study couldn’t prove finger imaging prevented duplicate benefits. In fact, it appeared the requirement caused people to leave the program temporarily. Rather than deterring fraud, finger imaging deters families from seeking help. In the current Texas system, all non-exempt adults, heads of households, or minor parents with children must submit to finger imaging when applying for SNAP benefits. If a head of household is intimidated or humiliated by the requirement and doesn’t complete the application process, the whole family loses out. What if an applicant is a frail older adult and has to make another trip to their local SNAP office? Low-income Texans should be helped, not hindered. Making them jump through unnecessary hoops to receive SNAP benefits is flat-out wrong.

Texas spent $1.5 million last year on finger imaging to reveal just four cases of fraud. Only one case was prosecuted – and no benefits recovered. Incredibly, Texas is on track to spend even more this year – $1.7 million – on an illogical program. For legislators talking openly about slashing the budgets of programs supporting our most vulnerable neighbors, paying even more for finger imaging of SNAP applicants constitutes hypocrisy. This wasteful program should go on the chopping block.

Food Banks have seen a 55.5 percent increase in first-time SNAP food benefit requests, totaling $405 million in benefits issued to more than 3.3 million recipients in March 2010, compared to $221.4 million issued to 2.3 million people in March 2008. The Governor and the Legislative Budget Board have asked state agencies to make significant budget cuts to reduce the state deficit. In May, the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) approved a $23 million cut (23 percent) in the FY 10-11 budget. This reduction includes a hiring freeze.

One of the major reasons SNAP is failing people at risk of hunger in Central Texas is a shortage of qualified staff to process applications. It’s a shame leaders would rather cut critical funding for vital services low-income people need rather than eliminate finger imaging.

Major HHSC budget cuts and a hiring freeze, yet an increase to $1.7 million for finger imaging. What gives?

In addition to reducing funds spent on an ineffective program to prevent fraud, the elimination of finger imaging would benefit Texas economically. Every $5 of new SNAP benefits generates up to $9.20 according USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. SNAP transfers economic benefits into our communities. When people who qualify for SNAP don’t apply, the Texas Food Bank Network (TFBN) estimates the state loses out on nearly $6.7 billion a year that could stimulate our economy. This should be a $6.7 billion dollar wake-up call for retailers affected by the recession and for legislators representing them. We should bring those dollars into our economy by removing unnecessary barriers to SNAP enrollment, not waste taxpayer dollars building them.

Moreover, TFBN estimates a loss of more than $3.6 billion in federal dollars to help hungry people. Instead of helping needy families access SNAP benefits allocated for their use, finger imaging creates a barrier – adding insult to injury.

Families suffering from hunger are hurting. Many parents feel ashamed they don’t have enough food for their children. Many elders are too proud to seek help. Thousands of people in Texas lost their jobs or are under-employed – or in the case of many young adults, can’t find jobs in the first place. Scores of people never thought they would need the support SNAP provides. Finger imaging is just one more hardship. It does nothing to uphold their dignity and put food on their tables.

The Capital Area Food Bank of Texas supports real solutions to help many more hungry families. Texas should hire more staff to process applications on time, streamline the SNAP enrollment system, and eliminate inefficient practices increasing staff workloads. We shouldn’t support policies and practices that don’t work.

As a Texan, I’m proud of so much about this state. But leading the nation in the number of children who don’t know where their next meal will come from and having the country’s worst government response to the critical issue of hunger don’t make my list.

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