The New York City Council’s Committees on General Welfare and Community Development held a joint hearing today to measure the city’s progress in the continuing fight against hunger.
The annual hearing is part of a series of events that General Welfare Committee Chair Annabel Palma, Community Development Committee Chair Al Vann, and other council members are participating in this week to highlight the growing number of New Yorkers experiencing food insecurity ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. The hearing focused broadly on the issue of hunger, examining increases in poverty and extreme need that have been fueled by a bad economy, budget cuts at all levels of government, and, in some cases, questionable public policy.
According to a survey commissioned by the United Way of New York City, and conducted by Global Strategy Group, nearly 40% of New Yorkers “have personally struggled to afford food or groceries over [the last year].” Many of these New Yorkers have turned to traditional sources of emergency assistance, including food pantries and soup kitchens, yet according to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger’s Annual 2010 Hunger Survey Report, more than half of emergency food agencies do not distribute enough food to meet current demand and nearly half reported turning away hungry New Yorkers, cutting portion sizes, and/or reducing their hours of operation.
“With hunger and extreme need still affecting so many in our City, it’s important that we in government engage in an active conversation about not only the need that exists, but how we can make good public policy and coordinate scarce government resources to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem,” said Council Member Annabel Palma, Chair of the Committee on General Welfare.
As part of the examination of emergency food services, the hearing also focused on barriers facing New Yorkers who apply for government food stamp benefits, including the controversial practice of finger imaging food stamp applicants. It has been estimated that finger imaging deters an estimated 30,000 needy New Yorkers from seeking emergency benefits every year. As a result, the number of New Yorkers experiencing food insecurity is exacerbated, the resources of other emergency food programs are overstretched, and the local economy loses out on millions of dollars in revenue from federal benefits.
“As poverty and hunger are increasing in our city, it is perplexing that the Bloomberg Administration continues with finger imaging food stamp applicants when it is both unnecessary and counterproductive,” said Council Member Al Vann, chair of the Committee on Community Development.
The City loses over $54 million a year in federal benefits because the practice of finger imaging food stamp applicants deters at least 30,000 New Yorkers from seeking assistance. The practice is widely accepted as being harmful and has been discontinued everywhere in the United States except Arizona and New York City. In addition to examining the impact of the Administration’s finger imaging policy, the hearing also focused on legislation introduced by Council Member Palma that is intended to pressure the administration into eliminating the finger imaging requirement current in place for food stamp applicants. The bill would require the Human Resources Administration to report annually on the number of applicants who are finger imaged, the amount of city funds spent finger imaging applicants, the number of fraud cases detected, and the number of successful prosecutions.
“I applaud the Council for continuing to uncover the facts about hunger and poverty in New York City,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “The Mayor often says, ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.’ I hope his Administration’s reluctance to measure this problem isn’t because they want to avoid responsibility for managing it.“
The hearing also focused on work requirement for food stamp recipients, which was part of the 1996 Federal Welfare Reform Bill, and applies to individuals ages 18-50, without dependent children who receive food stamps. This past year the City began enforcing the requirement without a formal announcement from HRA or the Bloomberg Administration. Most startling is the fact that the administration has refused to apply for a waiver which is offered as an option for cities and states with high unemployment rates. The waiver would allow anyone with a low enough income to continue receiving food stamps regardless of whether they’ve found a job. According to the USDA, 42 other states – and parts of 6 others – currently have waivers. There is significant evidence that this practice may be denying food stamps to those who might otherwise receive them.