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Food Stamps

FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2019 file photo, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue testifies during a House Agriculture Committee hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Trump administration is proposing to tighten automatic eligibility requirements for the food stamp program. The Agriculture Department says the change could affect about 3.1 million people. The agency says the rule would close “a loophole” that enables people receiving only minimal benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to be eligible automatically for food stamps.(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1976, he liked to badmouth people who received government benefits as undeserving. His prime example: a Chicago fraudster named Linda Taylor, dubbed "the welfare queen" by local tabloids. "Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year," Reagan proclaimed. This tale set the table for the welfare cutbacks of the 1980s and 1990s, in which millions of poverty-struck people lost access to welfare programs they desperately needed to help them make ends meet.

History, as they say, doesn't repeat, but it sure does rhyme. So let's meet one Rob Undersander, a soft-spoken Minnesota retiree who was doing volunteer work for a nonprofit organization when he discovered one could apply for and receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits - better known as food stamps - in a majority of states based on income alone, and not assets, no matter how wealthy the applicant.

This couldn't stand.

So Undersander sprang into action. He filled out an application for SNAP benefits, as a way of performing a citizen's "audit" on the program. After he received his card in the mail, he notified his local newspaper and numerous politicians. He ultimately testified about his experiences before the Minnesota legislature and, last month, the House of Representatives.

"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," Undersander piously said in a video he taped for the right-wing Foundation for Government Accountability this year. As a result, he was even willing to out his financials to make his point - sharing, as he told his story, the fact that he possesses, for instance, both an Individual Retirement Account and a Roth IRA. "It was a difficult decision to come out publicly and say that am a millionaire," he said.

No worries! Undersander's public admission was not in vain. On Tuesday morning, the Trump administration Department of Agriculture, headed up by Sonny Perdue (estimated net worth somewhere between $11 million and $53 million), announced planned new regulations for SNAP eligibility, ones that will likely result in 3 million losing their benefits. At issue? The loophole Undersander deliberately exploited to make a political point.

The majority of states deem people eligible for SNAP benefits if they benefit from other government safety net programs. The reason? Many people who could receive them do not file for them, something experts attribute to a combination of lack of knowledge, inability or unwillingness to navigate the sometimes daunting bureaucracy, and shame over needing them at all. Allowing people to receive benefits automatically minus an asset check is a way of getting around that problem. It also encourages low-income people to save, something just about everyone agrees is a good thing.

Enter the Trump administration. It will now, if the proposed new regulations go through as written, cut people off using strict savings and income standards, and will no longer allow states to adjust the amount upward. This change, the administration proclaims, will save $2.5 billion annually. Left unmentioned are the millionaires and billionaires who are costing the government multiples of that sum annually, courtesy of the Trump administration tax cuts.

There is a cluelessness about the struggles of the poverty-struck in this country. SNAP is a great place to see this in action. People who get food stamps are relentlessly shamed, their purchasing habits ruthlessly judged. A few months ago, one woman called her local new station, after she attempted to help out a fellow shopper at her local Albertsons who needed $12 more on her SNAP card to pay for the contents of her shopping cart. A clerk refused to take the money. "That's why they have babies, so they're getting all the free stuff," she says the clerk told her by way of explanation. The hapless shopper was attempting to purchase fruits and vegetables.

This is hardly the Trump administration's first attempt to take SNAP and other social welfare benefits away from people who need them. The administration's annual federal budgets routinely propose cuts to the programs ranging from SNAP to subsidized housing. The administration even, at one point, pitched replacing a percentage of the benefits with what was described as "a Blue-Apron like" box of non-perishable food. It is also seeking to potentially redefine how poverty itself is calculated so that it would be harder to qualify for such government aid as SNAP and Medicaid. At the same time, the Trump administration is making it harder for people to get ahead, by fighting attempts to raise the minimum wage.

In fact, it can seem like a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" approach to food stamps and other social safety net benefits. On one hand, Trump and other Republicans insist that beefing up eligibility standards is a way to prevent slackers and other layabouts from benefiting from the system. They are, they say, promoting work. On the other hand, they are punishing people for trying to get ahead, accusing them of seeking more than they deserve at the expense of the taxpayer.

I wanted to ask Undersander about all this, so I called a number for him I found online. No one answered. I left a message and if he calls me back, I'll follow up with another column. But in the meantime I can tell you a man with his name sent a letter to his local paper in 2015, demanding the state cease funding pre-kindergarten because "day care is the responsibility of the parents, not the taxpayer," while arguing that "senior care can and should be improved without the use of public funds." Sounds like a great guy.

As for Taylor, she went to jail for her crimes. But the actions of all these millionaires and billionaires - beginning with Trump and including Perdue and Undersander - are far, far worse. Taylor was just one thief. But our billionaire and millionaire overlords and their minions are literally taking food out of a lot of hungry people's mouths. That should be a crime, or at the very least a serious social embarrassment. It's our shame as a nation that it's not.

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Helaine Olen is a contributor to Washington Post Opinions and the author of "Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry." Her work has appeared in Slate, the Nation, the New York Times, the Atlantic and many other publications. She serves on the advisory board of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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