City welfare fingerprint plan flops

Graeme Bacque (gbacque@idirect.com)
Fri, 21 May 1999 07:36:00 -0400


May 21, 1999

City welfare fingerprint plan flops

ROYSON JAMES The Toronto Star

 YESTERDAY'S GLEEFUL squeals of ``Yipeeeee!!!!'' did not come only from Leaf
fans happy to get one of the few over-priced tickets for Sunday's hockey
playoff opener against the Buffalo Sabres at the Air Canada Centre.

Much of the celebration emanated from City Hall, where the minority of
councillors opposed to the fingerprinting of welfare recipients were
celebrating the demise of the planned system even before it got started.

Citibank, who two years earlier had confidently trumpeted its high tech
ability to hunt down welfare cheats and end fradulent claims, meekly
withdrew from the program last month - an action city staff has branded a
``fundamental and actionable breach of contract.''

In essence, Citibank was unable to deliver the goods, city officials say.
They won the contract, thinking they could easily adapt the more intrusive
American fingerprinting systems to satisfy Canadian sensibilities and
privacy laws, but couldn't. Frustrated, they asked for up-front money. The
city balked. The deal collapsed and both sides could end up in court.

You won't find any tears in Councillor Maria Augimeri's eyes, except ones of
joy.

``Some of us felt relief, but that is not close to what I felt when I heard
the plan was dead,'' Augimeri said yesterday, her chest heaving with
emotion. ``Pain avoidance was more like it.''

It became obvious the councillor from Black Creek took the issue personally.

As a child, her father died of leukemia and her mother had to raise three
children alone. They lived in a government-subsidized apartment on Falstaff
Ave., a North York address that too often brought ridicule to the young
Maria and her siblings.

``People looked at me differently when I told them where I lived,'' she
recalls. ``I felt stigmatized enough growing up because of where l lived.
Why would you want to stigmatize such people any more? Why add to their
pain?''

Two of the three Augimeri children finished university, and Maria says this
success story can only be told because of the social safety net in this
city, province and country.

City staff say despite the media's preoccupation with the finger-scanning
aspect of the system, the real benefits rested elsewhere. Using what they
called a biometric identifier, staff would have been able to track each
welfare recipient and reduce overpayment, catch errors and monitor spending
more efficiently.

In all, the savings would have amounted to $28 million a year, staff
estimated. Now, it's back to square one. From the outset, social activists
and some councillors lambasted the plan. Welfare fraud was exaggerated, they
said.

No other groups in society had to submit to such a rigorous examination.
Fingerprintng left the impression that welfare recipients were criminals and
was a further evidence of bashing the poor.

The politicians tried to de-fang the system. They gave it a euphemistic
name - the Client Identification and Benefits System - a clear attempt to
disguise its sinister intent.

Opponents were unfazed. They pointed out the acronym spelled CIBS, which
sounded like sibs or sibling . . . sister, brother . . . Big Brother.

The arguments fell on deaf ears. Technology had given the law-and-order
proponents the tool to clamp down on the cheats and, just imagine the huge
savings.

Well, the toll is in. The big bank and its partners can't make it work. They
want more money, much of it up-front, for less work over a shorter time. And
all this, after two years of what the city says has been sloppy work in
attempting to design the project.

Makes you think that if they could, they would apply for welfare.