As of Dec. 1, every recipient of food stamps in Massachusetts must present a special photo identification card. ''Our goal is to reduce fraud and to protect the food-stamp recipient,'' says Mary Coviello of the state Department of Public Welfare, which administers the state's food-stamp program.
The United States Department of Agriculture (DOA) first required ID cards, or an ''alternative form'' of security, in 1981 to reduce fraud and to decrease the number of stolen coupons. This regulation applied to communities that had 100, 000 or more food-stamp clients. The requirement did not affect the states.
Massachusetts is the only state to adopt the ID card for all food-stamp clients. Former Gov. Edward J. King (D) asked the DOA to permit a statewide ID program here.
In Boston, where the ID program has been operational since May, the number of duplicate food-stamp coupons issued to clients has dropped by about 50 percent, says Ms. Coviello. But, she says, the Department of Public Welfare has not had time to determine how much of the decline can be attributed to the ID cards. More than 150,000 people have these cards, and 600 agents, most of them banks, distribute the stamps.
During 1982, state courts ordered parties convicted of fraud (individuals as well as institutions) to repay $6.6 million to the state. Earlier, the Bay State was among areas criticized by the US government for its handling of food stamps.
''When food stamps are stolen, most recipients have no financial cushion to make up for the loss. And before ID cards, most of them had no form of identification such as a driver's license or bank account,'' she says.
''There was initial opposition to ID cards, but most of this has disappeared. These cards help the food-stamp user, and they don't stigmatize the client.'' Opponents of the plan said ID cards would demean food-stamp users. But opposition faded when the program was set up so that recipients did not have to display the ID card publically in stores. The plan involves two steps:
The state sends ATP (authorization to participate) cards once a month to 600 distribution centers. Then the food-stamp recipient reports to the center for an ATP card, presenting the proper ID card. The ID number and signature must match the ATP number and signature.