Fingerprints and Benefits

It would seem obvious—except that for many, it is not—that governments have every right to make sure that the benefits they distribute are going to the right people, and that those people are eligible to receive them.

For nearly two decades, New York City has been cracking down on food-stamp fraud by fingerprinting eligible recipients. The measure has saved millions of dollars. But it now appears that the program is doomed—Governor Cuomo has said he will put an end to fingerprinting food-stamp recipients and so remove what critics see as an unnecessarily harsh requirement for needed benefits.

Mr. Cuomo paraphrased his father and predecessor, Mario Cuomo, in signaling his support for phasing out the fingerprinting requirement. “It is important that government leads using its head and its heart,” he said, echoing a phrase Mario Cuomo used during his 12 years in office. He’s right—government cannot be heartless, nor can it be unthinking.

Only the unthinking would argue that government should simply hand out benefits without making some inquiries about eligibility. But the fingerprinting process does have a heartless quality to it. After all, fingerprinting is most associated with criminal suspects. Poor people should not be made to feel as though they are criminals for simply asking for help to feed their families. “You cannot stigmatize these New Yorkers,” said Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy. He’s right.

That said, the Cuomo administration needs to devise a better way to combat fraud, using both its heart and its head. After all, those who game the system inevitably hurt those who genuinely need public assistance of some sort, whether in the form of food stamps, workers’ compensation or welfare.

Fingerprinting does conjure images of criminalization. That’s a burden the poor should not have to carry.

But the abandonment of fingerprinting should not mean an end to government crackdowns on frauds and cheats.

The state should come up with a better alternative.