WASHINGTON ― As the Donald Trump administration prepares more regulations to strip poor people of food benefits, Republicans on Capitol Hill are launching something of a charm offensive.
During a hearing Thursday, Republicans pointed to 66-year-old Rob Undersander, a retired Minnesota millionaire who signed up for federal food assistance last year just to prove that some of the program’s enrollees don’t deserve help.
“He did this to call attention to the flaws in the system,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) said of Undersander, who responded with a nod from the front row of the audience.
Democrats had called the hearing to highlight the possible bad effects of a rules change under consideration at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It would be the agency’s second regulation targeting food assistance, part of the Trump administration’s overall effort to slash social programs.
A USDA policy known as “broad-based categorical eligibility” gives states leeway on income and asset requirements. As a result, in most states SNAP applicants still have to demonstrate that they have low incomes, but not that their bank accounts are empty. The Trump administration might try to take away that flexibility, which Republicans say lets thousands of millionaires collect food benefits each year.
Eliminating the flexibility would reduce program enrollment by about 4%, according to an analysis by Mathematica Policy Research. The program currently provides food benefits to roughly 36 million Americans, making it one of the government’s biggest programs.
Food benefit fraud is relatively rare, according to the Congressional Research Service. Roughly 5% of SNAP benefits were overpayments in 2017 and only 11% of those were due to fraud.
Democrats did not take kindly to Undersander’s presence at the hearing. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), chair of the agriculture subcommittee on nutrition, said Undersander had “willfully and maliciously” gamed the system to obtain benefits.
“You did this all to continue the right-wing crusade against poor people,” Fudge said.
“He intentionally defrauded the federal government,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said.
Republicans insisted that Undersander had not broken the rules. “This gentleman told the truth,” Johnson said. “He didn’t commit a single act of fraud.”
Complaining about loafers illegitimately receiving welfare benefits has been a staple of Republican politics for decades, at the very least since Ronald Reagan bemoaned “a woman in Chicago” who used 80 fake names to swindle the government. During the Barack Obama administration, they pointed to a California surfer who used his food benefits for lobster and didn’t say he was sorry.
A spokeswoman for the committee’s Republicans said Undersander had been invited by the conservative advocacy group Foundation for Government Accountability, not Republicans themselves. Since he wasn’t a formal witness, he didn’t have a chance to defend himself during the hearing.
In a video produced by FGA, an outfit that cheerleads the Trump administration’s welfare agenda, Undersander said he’d been helping seniors fill out government forms as a volunteer when he learned SNAP doesn’t have an asset limit in Minnesota.
“I’ve worked hard all my life, I’ve saved money, that’s the way I was raised, to live off those savings later in life,” he said in the video. “My goal in doing this is certainly not the publicity. I really want the law changed in Minnesota so that the money goes to the truly needy.”