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Debate over food stamps turns nasty at the Capitol

Proposed changes to a SNAP benefits loophole saw tensions rise.

Things got heated at the State Capitol this week when discussions turned to food stamps.

The Minnesota House Health and Human Services Committee were discussing HF118 on Wednesday when outrage filled the chamber.

The bill proposed by Rep. Jeff Howe (R–Rockville) would have changed the eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) so that it takes into account a wider number of assets rather than just basic income.

Currently applicants must have an income of less than 165 percent the federal poverty limit to be approved for SNAP – the change would mean it also takes into account money people already have.

The reason for this, Howe said, was to stop people taking advantage of a system that grants those on low incomes subsidies for groceries.

And to prove his point, Howe brought Rob Undersander to address to the committee – and it was his presence that led to the controversy you can watch at the bottom of this story.

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Wealthy man claims SNAP to highlight loophole

Undersander, it emerged, is a self-described millionaire who over the course of 19 months claimed SNAP benefits despite he and his wife being more than capable of paying for their own groceries.

He did this, he said, to expose a loophole that determined he was eligible for SNAP despite drawing an income from a Roth IRA – which is not including in income eligibility tests because it's drawn tax-free in retirement.

"I'm here to ask who thinks 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 accepted nearly $6,000 SNAP benefits over a 19-month period ending in January this year.

"Why did we do this? To raise public awareness," Undersander said, noting that they donated equivalent amounts to charities, his church and the needy.

As Sessions Daily notes, his experiment outraged Rep. Jack Considine (D–Mankato), who at one point suggested Undersander could be criminally prosecuted (before realizing what he did wasn't a crime), and described his actions as "very despicable."

"You knew this was wrong, and you did it anyway," he said.

Coming to Undersander's defense was Rep. Mary Franson (R–Alexandria), who compared the SNAP program to a plate of free cookies and said Undersander "should be able to come to a committee without being accused of being a thief." 

Committee chair Rep. Matt Dean (R–White Bear Lake) added that it is "perplexing to many" that any attempt to look into qualifications or eligibility for benefits leads to "strident opposition" and "personal attacks on people who bring that up."

But both Reps. Dave Pinto (D–Saint Paul) and (D–Eagan) Laurie Halverson said that adding the asset requirement could add extra burden on a system when there's no indication if Minnesota has a big problem with rich people claiming SNAP.

"I'm perplexed that we are discussing a solution to a problem that we have yet to establish actually exists," Halverson said, noting the bill has been presented only with anecdotal evidence, and not any data.

Gov. Mark Dayton criticized Undersander in his Thursday press conference, saying: "If I were him I would have been ashamed to show up and disclose what I’d done. It’s not instructive.

"Are there other people that are gaming the system? Sure. People at Wells Fargo were gaming the customers, you name it. Any large system can be gamed. … The question is are you going to make public policy based on those anecdotes or are you going to look at the totality of the situation?”

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