Yesterday, at a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing, lawmakers engaged in a debate over something called “broad-based categorical eligibility.” Put simply, it’s a legal provision that allows low-income people who qualify for one social assistance program (like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) to more easily qualify for another (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps).
But this isn’t a blog post about federal food programs. This is a blog post about racism.
At yesterday’s hearing, the story of a man named Rob Undersander stole the show. A retiree from Minnesota, Undersander and his wife lived comfortably off her social security benefits and, according to the couple, had additional savings and assets worth upwards of $1 million. In 2016, Undersander applied for SNAP benefits and was accepted. (Minnesota, like many states, uses only an income limit to determine eligibility.) Undersander and his wife received monthly benefits from 2016 into the following year.
How you decide to look at this story might depend on a lot of things: your economic status, your political leanings, your general feelings about the Midwest.
But it might also depend on how you view race, consciously or otherwise.
Undersander is white. And this is important.
It was the key factor allowing House Republicans to paint him as the hearing’s hero. Instead of an abuser of the system, Undersander was portrayed as an undercover investigator; a savvy citizen producing a powerful exposé on the loopholes in government systems; a vigilante taking the law into his own hands in the name of fiscal responsibility. Perhaps most importantly, he was granted the privilege of participating in the shaping of his own narrative—a privilege often denied to people of color, particularly when accused of any wrongdoing. A quick search for his name yields a number of news stories in which Undersander is quoted, including a video interview explaining his actions and intentions.
“He did this to call attention to the flaws in the system,” affirmed Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD). Meanwhile, Fox News called him a “food stamp program watchdog.”
It didn’t matter that no one asked him to conduct this experiment, or that he continued to receive benefits for months after he “exposed” the so-called loophole. Applying for benefits and being approved, despite his apparent wealth, would have been enough to prove a point.
If he were black, these things would have mattered.
If he were black, this story wouldn’t have been quite so useful to House Republicans.
If he were black, Rob Undersander might have looked a little too much like Linda Taylor.
No, he didn’t break any laws. But this isn’t a blog about federal food programs—just as yesterday’s hearing wasn’t about running those programs more efficiently.
It was yet another platform created to push a partisan political agenda to dismantle social assistance programs—an agenda that failed to find success in the bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill. This agenda flies in the face of science, and often reason, and at its core is defined by gross mischaracterizations by a powerful majority about poverty, prosperity, and, inextricably, race.