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Biden falsely attacks Trump over a food stamp policy supported by Bloomberg

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“First of all, what we’re doing is immoral. I know that’s not a phrase they often use in politics, but it’s immoral. Look what he’s doing right — look what this president’s doing right now. Look what people have done before. They’re going to fingerprint food stamp recipients.”

Former vice president Joe Biden, in an interview with Benjamin F. Chavis at a National Newspaper Publishers Association session, Feb. 20, 2020

These remarks puzzled us, as we were unaware of any Trump administration proposal to fingerprint food-stamp recipients. Biden raised the issue in the context of denouncing the president’s budget for “cutting a billion dollars out of the — all the social safety net, this outfit, whether it’s Medicare, Medicaid, whether — across the board.”

Trump’s budget would attempt to squeeze $920 billion from Medicaid, though the plan faces fierce opposition from Democrats. He also is seeking hundreds of billions of dollars in savings from Medicare, but as we have documented before, these ideas are mostly borrowed from Barack Obama proposals.

So for the purposes of this fact check, we will focus on Biden’s claim about fingerprinting.

The Facts

As president, Trump has regularly crowed that the number of food-stamp recipients has declined during his presidency. About 6 million people have stopped receiving assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) since February 2017, according to the latest data.

Still, SNAP participation had fallen before Trump’s election. SNAP participation generally tracks with the official poverty rate, which has been falling since 2010. And, generally speaking, lower unemployment means people are less reliant on SNAP benefits. But Trump has also sought to tighten eligibility rules, which could remove 700,000 people from food stamps over the next five years.

But Trump’s food-stamp proposals do not include fingerprinting. So what could Biden have been talking about during his interview with Chavis?

It turns out that former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, not Trump, was a strong supporter of fingerprinting food stamp recipients. It was an idea implemented in 1996 under then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, but Bloomberg fought hard to keep the fingerprinting program in place even after states such as California and Texas — and the rest of New York state — abandoned the practice.

“City Council Speaker Christine Quinn says the requirement deters some 30,000 low-income residents from accessing the program, depriving them of $54 million in federal benefits,” reported Governing magazine in 2011. “But Mayor Michael Bloomberg remains a staunch advocate of the program, which, according to the city’s Human Resources Administration, helped identify 1,900 cases of duplicate applicants and saved almost $5.3 million last year.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) in 2012 pushed to end fingerprinting, and ultimately succeeded in ending the program in New York City.

Bloomberg complained that ending the program would lead to greater fraud. As recently as 2018, he defended the fingerprinting requirement, even though Arizona, the last state that had continued the practice, had abandoned it a year earlier. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) said it was a wasteful program that turned up only 10 duplicate applications out of more than 1 million.

“We had something called food stamps — there’s a long name for what the program is but it’s a program where you have to work to get food stamps,” Bloomberg said during an interview with International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde. “What we found was that were a handful of people who signed up under different names, and they were getting four or five times the amount that they were supposed to get, which meant that we couldn’t take care of some of the people who really deserved it. … So what we did is we fingerprinted people so you could only register once. Now, there was a lot of yelling and screaming and saying we’re invading your personal space by looking at your fingerprints. Well that may be, but you can’t come to work for New York City unless we fingerprint you first, so it is not unreasonable to think the beneficiaries of our program would get fingerprinted, too, and we’re just stopping people from breaking the law, which is hurting other people.”

Julie Wood, a Bloomberg campaign spokeswoman, said the candidate still believed fingerprinting was appropriate.

“Mayor Bloomberg consistently said he thought fingerprinting made sense as a way to make sure people only signed up once, and he gave many examples of the different uses for fingerprinting, including that all city employees were fingerprinted,” Wood said. “More importantly, though, he increased access to food stamps and the number of people who were able to receive them went up during his mayoralty, whereas President Trump is working to limit the program.” She also noted that Bloomberg opposed congressional efforts to cut benefits.

(Bloomberg was mayor from 2002 to 2013, so we should note that during that period, the United States experienced a recession and Congress and the Obama administration boosted benefits and expanded eligibility, leading to a nationwide spike in recipients.)

The Biden campaign acknowledged that Biden meant to refer to Bloomberg, not Trump.

“Vice President Biden believes that the ultimate test of who we are is how we treat the least fortunate among us, and he thinks it’s outrageous that the Trump administration has been attempting to make it harder for Americans who have fallen on hard times to ensure they can eat,” spokesman Andrew Bates said. “Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to require families who needed that kind of assistance to submit to fingerprinting fell very much in the same vein as these Trump policies. Sometimes Republican billionaires make it easy to mix up their records.”

The Pinocchio Test

In this campaign, we’ve seen Biden often get stories mixed up, mislead about his record or tell tall tales. He was talking about Trump, but somehow slipped in an attack line against Bloomberg, even using the high-dudgeon word “immoral.”

Trump has sought to tighten eligibility, but he has not required fingerprinting. That was an idea briefly in vogue in the 1990s, but it’s an idea whose time has passed. Meanwhile, Bloomberg still defends the practice, so it’s not even as if he’s flip-flopped on the issue.

It’s a bit of hot mess, but Biden’s staff acknowledges he misspoke. We’ve corrected the record but will leave this unrated.

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