THE latest application of high-tech IDs sounds cooly efficient: electronic fingerprinting of welfare recipients to improve identification and reduce fraud. An electronic scanner records the lines and whorls of an index finger in a computer, eliminating the need for ink.
In New York, Gov. Mario Cuomo has just approved ``finger imaging'' for New York City and two suburban counties. His office estimates that the practice could save as much as $58 million a year by weeding out double dippers who collect benefits under different names or in several locations.
Similar fingerprinting programs in California - in Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, and San Francisco counties - collectively serve as a cautionary tale, however.
Together, these counties reportedly averaged a 30 percent drop in the number of recipients seeking aid, although some of that reduction can be attributed to tighter residency requirements. And in San Francisco, a study of welfare records uncovered just one case of fraud, for a savings of about $1,300. That is hardly an impressive return on the city's $1 million investment in the system, although proponents insist that it pays for itself by discouraging fraud.
Critics on both coasts worry that these programs will frighten away needy people and stigmatize those who do collect benefits. Supporters counter that recipients who legitimately qualify for welfare have nothing to fear. Police will not have access to welfare fingerprint files.
At a time when get-tough moves to cut welfare costs are proliferating, fraud prevention is an appealing prospect. But state officials arguing for these programs must be cautious in their estimates of possible savings. No one really knows how much fraud exists. And safeguards must be included to protect the rights of recipients.
At the same time, Americans need to remain open-minded about the potential value of new forms of identification. In Washington, the Commission on Immigration Reform is considering a proposal to give every American a tamper-proof Social Security card. And in Mexico, the government has just spent nearly $800 million to give its citizens voter identification cards that include a photograph, signature, hologram, and fingerprint.
Still, systems like these raise legitimate civil liberties concerns. States need to be sure that high-tech fingerprints are not used to point a suspicious finger at those who legitimately need financial help.