A Minnesota man applied for and then received government food stamps for well over a year, even though he is a millionaire, in an effort to prove his belief that the eligibility requirements for the benefits in his state were too loose.
Rob Undersander’s story will be told in a Thursday House agriculture subcommittee meeting. The meeting will examine broad-based categorical eligibility requirements (BBCEs), which the Minnesota engineer exploited, for the nation’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP)—commonly referred to as food stamps.
Undersander and his wife retired a few years ago and mainly lived off his wife’s early social security benefits, but they had also developed a nest egg that put their net worth somewhere just north of $1 million. About the same time, as a volunteer with the Central Minnesota Council on Aging helping seniors navigate enrollment and other issues with various government programs, he became something of an expert on government benefits and how to apply for them.
"I'm sitting in the [training] class, I'll never forget this," Undersander told the Washington Free Beacon by phone. "We're going through pages and pages of all these programs for low-income seniors that have ascending income [qualification] levels and ascending asset levels. But when you get to SNAP, it’s only income."
The SNAP program is mainly funded by federal dollars, but states create their own rules and distribution mechanisms for the money. The conservative-leaning think tank Foundation for Government Accountability estimates that 33 other states are like Minnesota, meaning they do not take net worth into account when determining eligibility, only income.
"I’ve got the [SNAP] form in my hand and I’m thinking of my financial situation, and I said 'you know, I just can’t believe this,'" he said. "So I went down to the second floor of the Sterns County Courthouse, stood in line a little bit, handed in the application and three weeks later I’m getting food stamps, a balance on my EBT card."
"Even legislators are not aware that millionaires can get food stamps," Undersander later added.
Undersander said he carefully documented how he re-donated "equal to or more" of the SNAP money he received to charitable causes in his county in addition to other direct assistance he provided to needy people in his area, so that he did not personally benefit. He and his wife received the SNAP benefits from 2016 into the following year.
The experiment was not well received by Democrats in his home state, however, with one lashing out when Undersander testified in an effort to tighten eligibility in Minnesota.
"You knew this was wrong and you did it anyway," a state Democrat lawmaker said to Undersander. "I find it pretty despicable. … I am just sorry there is no way we can prosecute you."
The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported hearing gasps from several people in the committee room when the idea of prosecution was raised.
"I didn’t have an opportunity to respond directly to that, but my response would have been 'Let’s see. You’re angry with me that I took food stamps according to the laws that you support,'" Undersander said. "I think there’s a little bit of irony there, or maybe even hypocrisy."
His efforts to tighten eligibility through legislation in Minnesota were unsuccessful.
The Democratic House majority is holding the hearing in anticipation of SNAP rule changes from the White House, which roiled the debate over the 2018 farm bill, that could alter elements of BBCEs.
"Republicans had a thoughtful approach to removing this egregious loophole in the 2018 Farm Bill," a Republican staffer in the House Agriculture Committee told the Free Beacon. "The elimination of BBCE, paired with improved federal asset tests and mandatory transitional SNAP benefits, provided flexibility to working families. But instead, Democrats objected and the current misguided policy remains. Now we are having another hearing premised on a knee-jerk reaction to an administrative proposal that has yet to see the light of day."
The Foundation for Government Accountability, who also produced the video on Undersander posted below, estimates that broad-based categorical eligibility loopholes have "allowed more than five million people to enroll in food stamps without meeting eligibility rules."
FGA and others argue that tightening eligibility requirements would help ensure that resources available through government programs like SNAP go to the truly needy.
"The [broad-based categorical eligibility] loophole has stretched the program far beyond its initial purpose," the foundation said in a policy paper.
Undersander has said on numerous occasions he does not want SNAP aid cut off, but wants to ensure it is efficiently distributed to those most in need, something he believes isn’t happening in most states.
Although he is not expected to testify, Undersander will be in attendance at the Thursday subcommittee meeting and hopes to talk to members about his experience and concerns afterwards.