Rep. Jeff Howe (R-St. Cloud) is chief author of a bill that would impose asset restrictions on recipients of the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the welfare program formerly known as food stamps.
In introducing the proposal to the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee Wednesday, Howe said he's not aiming to get people kicked off the federal food security program. "People in need should get assistance," says Howe, who claims he's only trying to "protect the program from abuse."
Does Howe have evidence the system is, in fact, being abused? He does: exactly one case, involving a rich constituent of his named Rob Undersander, who took some thousands of dollars in SNAP benefits despite his having millions of dollars saved up for retirement.
As a matter of fact, Undersander was right there, sitting next to Howe, and prepared to tell his story of taking money he didn't need. To brag about it.
"I'm here," Undersander told the committee, "because I think the state of Minnesota should not give food stamps to millionaires, and high-net-worth individuals. I know you do because my wife and I have received nearly $6,000 over a 19-month period ending in January of this year. Why did we do this? To raise public awareness. In a nutshell, we would not be here talking to you today if we hadn't."
Undersander, a residnt of Waite Park, contests SNAP benefits should be "made available only to those in need, not people like my wife and myself." Because Minnesota denies benefits only on the basis of income, not assets, Undersander testified, rich people like him could take advantage of SNAP benefits, living like kings on about $300 a month -- can you imagine? -- which can only be spent on groceries or food-bearing plants.
After he'd finished his testimony, Undersander happily took questions from lawmakers present. Some of them were pretty pissed.
"You knew this was wrong," Rep. Jack Considine (DFL-Mankato) told the testifier, "and yet you did it anyway. And frankly, I find this pretty despicable."
"What?" another legislator cried out, audible on the committe microphones. Considine directed his next comments to her.
"The guy has far more money than -- by his own admission -- but he found a loophole," said Considine, who added that he was only upset that Undersander could not be subject to criminal prosecution. The same woman gasped. (Later, we'll help you guess who that might've been!)
Considine said this rich man's abuse of the system is "not a typical case of people on SNAP, and I don't like seeing it portrayed as such."
Undersander explained that he and his wife gave the equivalent of the SNAP money they'd received away to "charities, my church, and needy individuals," stating: "My wife and I can do a better job of distributing these benefits than the federal government can."
As it turns out, Undersander has believed for some time that he knows better than the government what people should expect in services. Namely: nothing. In 2015, when the state of Minnesota was sitting on a $1.9 billion surplus, he authored a letter to the St. Cloud Times saying the state "stole" the money, and it should "be given back to taxpayers in the same amounts from where it came."
In Undersander's view, the state should not only not be providing pre-kindergarten for children -- "day care for children under 5," he called it -- but it also shouldn't help the elderly who weren't successful enough to save for their retirement, like his own father, who had "financial resources because he worked hard his entire life and made good choices."
Undersander seemed pretty pleased with his own choices on Wednesday, explaining that he has two types of savings accounts: a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA. Because the Roth IRA is already taxed, it is not counted as income, meaning Undersander could tap that fund while also collecting SNAP benefits.
If he or anyone else present Wedesday has evidence anyone in Minnesota was doing this aside from Rob Undersander, they did not provide it.
How much would the Rob Undersander Freedom from Fraud bill save Minnesotans? A House researcher explained that because the program is federally funded, it "will not affect the state budget."
Except, perhaps, as a net negative: Forcing counties to determine if their SNAP recipients are sneakily squirreling away assets -- or happen to have a Roth IRA, like a certain Waite Park millionaire -- would inevitably add to already overburdened office's workloads. That means more hours, more employees, more money. (Don't ask Rob Undersander for it.)
Springing to Undersander's defense was one Rep. Mary Franson (R-Alexandria), who piped up to say people "should be able to come to a committee without being accused of being a thief." (Consider this City Pages' official hint about who gasped at the suggestion Undersander should be prosecuted.) Franson said she was "really sorry" about how Undersander had been treated.
Franson once -- no, make that twice -- compared food stamp recipients to wild animals. Isn't it nice she finally found someone worthy of compassion?
In the most incongruous moment of all, Rep. Matt Dean (R-Dellwood), who chairs the committee, interrupted Rep. Laurie Halverson (DFL-Eagan), as she made the case that Undersander had brought a "piece of a narrative," and proven nothing.
"You know if you're hungry and you can't feed your children," she said. "You know if you're not going to make it to the end of the month."
Dean, who was visibly pleased by Undersander's testimony about abusing the SNAP system, cut Halverson off, saying: "I think it's just as likely that you could say that there are people who do not qualify, but are hungry, and do need food."
Great point, Mr. Chairman. Want to help those people? Start listening to them, and stop listening to Rob Undersander, whose testimony Wednesday proved little else except that he is rich, a jackass, and pretty proud of both.
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