Officials: Many fail to take advantage of aid

John Zick

Nearly one out of five residents of Chemung, Steuben and Schuyler counties rely on food stamps, but many people who are eligible are not taking advantage of the aid, if Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s estimates are accurate.

During his State of the State address two weeks ago, Cuomo said one of his goals this year is to reach more food stamp-eligible New Yorkers. According to the governor, 30 percent of residents eligible for the program don’t take advantage of it.

If that figure’s accurate, more than 50,000 of the 205,000 residents of the tri-county area would be eligible for food stamps. Currently, approximately 40,000 people in the tri-county area use food stamps. Statewide, approximately one out of six residents uses food stamps.

County leaders were unable to confirm whether Cuomo’s estimate fits locally, but officials said there are certainly many eligible people who fail to take advantage of the program.

“Single individuals, families, the elderly – they all have different reasons for applying or not applying,” Steuben County Administrator Mark Alger said. “Some of the older folks are too independent, and younger folks may not know they’re eligible.”

Cuomo said New York leaves more than $1 billion in food stamp funding on the table annually. All food stamp funding is provided by the federal government and administered at the state level – counties are involved in the application process but do not handle funds.

According to officials, excess funding is not rolled over and is returned to the federal government, meaning if it’s not used, it’s lost.

“Either you spend it or you don’t,” Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli said.

More than $5 billion in food stamp aid is distributed to New Yorkers annually, well over half of which is used in New York City. Locally, more than $46 million was dispersed in 2011 – $24.6 million in Chemung, $18.2 million in Steuben and $4 million in Schuyler.

“It’s a sizeable amount of money coming into the county through food stamps,” Alger said.

In his speech, Cuomo said erasing the stigma associated with food stamps is the key to reaching all those who are eligible. Specifically, the governor said, the state should stop requiring fingerprinting – or fingerimaging – for those who receive benefits.

Cuomo’s statement drew the ire of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said fingerprinting does not stigmatize recipients and is the government’s best weapon in fighting fraud.

In 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer got rid of the fingerprinting requirement for food stamps but authorized a waiver for New York City and several other counties to continue fingerprinting. Steuben is one of the counties that still requires fingerprints for food stamps, though there are hardship waivers, Department of Social Services Commissioner Kathy Muller said.

“(Fingerprinting) is a very good fraud technique to use,” Alger said “There’s quite a bit of success detecting fraud. I think it keeps people honest and guarantees one benefit to one person.”

Schuyler County Administrator Tim O’Hearn agreed.

“I think fingerprinting is a valuable tool to weed out what is a minority of fraudulent users,” O’Hearn said. “In the times we’re in where every dollar counts, we can’t afford ill spending of these dollars. I don’t know that fingerprinting has a negative stigma – and every reasonable means should be employed to eliminate fraud.”

For more information, including how to apply, visit otda.ny.gov/programs/foodstamps/, or call your local department of social services.

Food stamps can be used for:

• Breads and cereals

• Fruits and vegetables

• Meats, fish and poultry

• Dairy products

• Candy, cookies, soft drinks, snack crackers, ice cream

• Seeds and plants that produce food for the household to eat

• In some areas, restaurants can be authorized to accept food stamps from qualified homeless, elderly or disabled people in exchange for low-cost meals.

Food stamps can’t be used for:

• Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes and tobacco

• Nonfood items such as pet foods, soaps, paper products, household supplies

• Vitamins and medicin

• Foods that will be eaten in the store

• Hot foods