State Debates Fingerprinting of Aid Recipients


As lawmakers set about crafting the state's next budget, they have publicly battled over revenue figures, budget reserves and education funding.

But buried within the pages of various spending blueprints and accompanying legislation are a variety of proposed policy shifts. A particularly controversial one has renewed a debate over whether it is worth ensuring that poor children receive aid if the price is opening the door to fraud.

At issue is a change being sought in the Legislature that would eliminate the requirement for certain adults to be fingerprinted and photographed in order for the children they live with to receive public assistance.

That category--in which children qualify for welfare but adults do not--includes American-born children of undocumented immigrants, needy children overseen by caretakers and children who share households with convicted drug felons or welfare cheats.

Advocates for the poor worry that these children are being deprived of assistance they are entitled to because the photo and fingerprint requirements make their parents afraid to apply for aid on their behalf.

Others contend that the checks are crucial for thwarting welfare fraud because they deter people from applying for aid in multiple counties and states. Crooks have used bogus identification and false Social Security cards to file numerous applications for benefits.

An infamous example occurred in Los Angeles County, where a welfare mother was convicted in 1983 of bilking the county of $377,000 in aid payments. She posed as a dozen different women and claimed 49 dependent children before investigators found her living in a Pasadena mansion.

Fear of such fraud has prompted Republican lawmakers, the California Welfare Fraud Investigators Assn. and the California District Attorneys Assn. to oppose the elimination of the checks for adults who do not receive aid.

They also disapprove of an Assembly proposal that would free adults who receive aid from having to provide photo identification of themselves. Lawmakers negotiating the state's next budget will decide whether to incorporate the proposals into legislation that accompanies the 2001-02 spending plan.

"This is a relatively easy way to have some control over potential fraud," said Irvine Sen. Dick Ackerman, who serves as the Republicans' point man on budget matters in the upper house.

Gov. Gray Davis has not taken a position on the matter, according to a spokeswoman, but his finance officials oppose the proposed changes.

"We think that the changes would limit the state's ability to identify and detour CalWORKS and food stamp fraud and therefore result in additional costs," Finance Department spokesman Sandy Harrison said.

The Los Angeles district attorney's office also opposes the changes. The county Board of Supervisors has not taken a position.

County officials have been fingerprinting welfare recipients since the early 1990s. One study of the Los Angeles program found that of those recipients who refused to be fingerprinted, roughly 34% subsequently returned and received aid.

Eliminating the checks could cause the state to incur two types of expenses: one triggered by new cases of fraud and the other by a rise in the number of people who qualify for benefits and finally come forward to apply for them.

Critics of the identification requirements describe them as a form of government harassment that has scared away the poor--particularly new immigrants who are fearful of law enforcement--from seeking help for their needy children.

"In an effort to eliminate all fraud, we have denied people who qualify the right to access the benefits they deserve," said Dan Savage, chief of staff for Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, a Los Angeles Democrat who is pushing to have the checks eliminated.

Cedillo sent budget writers a letter that noted a dramatic decline in recent years in participation in the food stamp program. He cited a report by the California Food Policy Advocates, which found that only 45% of those eligible for food stamps in the state actually receive them.

"At that rate," Cedillo wrote, "we are sure to pay the cost down the line with food banks, increased poverty and sick, malnourished children."

A key fear among immigrants, according to experts, is that the information will be shared with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"I think many people have reasons to doubt the government's credibility," said Casey McKeever, directing attorney for the Sacramento office of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, an advocacy group for the poor.

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