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Once at risk of losing food stamps, 15,000 Baltimore residents get relief from coronavirus bill

Two months ago, roughly 15,000 people in Baltimore were steeling themselves for a new Trump administration rule that would’ve slashed their food stamp benefits.

Much has changed in the weeks since, as life across the globe is upended by the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic. Amid so much bad news, some relief is coming for those thousands of Baltimore residents who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

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As part of federal coronavirus-related legislation, federal lawmakers last week suspended a rule that would’ve made it harder for able-bodied adults without dependents to maintain their food stamp benefits.

“The 15,000 will continue with benefits as it has always been for them,” said Baltimore food policy director Holly Freishtat.

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The Trump administration’s change would have meant that adults between 18 to 49 years old who work less than 20 hours a week and have no dependents would have their food stamp benefits cut to just three months during a three-year period.

Initially set to go into effect Wednesday, the rule is also is also facing a challenge in court.

The policy was, in the words of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, an attempt to move people “from welfare to work.”

But many in Baltimore face barriers to employment, including addiction, health problems and criminal records. Some are seasonally employed or underemployed, so they don’t meet the requirement of 20 hours per week. The current public health crisis exacerbates these underlying problems.

“These are the kinds of safety nets that people need,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat.

The rule suspension applies until after the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration is lifted.

McIntosh said it must be permanent.

“When we get through this,” she said of the pandemic, “if we don’t move to understanding that health care and food access should be a right in this country, then I don’t know what would move us.”

Maryland has taken other steps to ensure broader food access while residents struggle with the widespread impact of this disease.

The state Department of Human Services received a waiver allowing it to issue six-month extensions for food stamp certification to those whose benefits were scheduled to expire in March, April and May.

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