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As many as 15,000 people in Baltimore could see their food stamp benefits slashed under a new Trump administration rule that tightens eligibility requirements. In this Jan. 23, 2019, photo, a booth at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey offered information about food stamps at a food drive.
As many as 15,000 people in Baltimore could see their food stamp benefits slashed under a new Trump administration rule that tightens eligibility requirements. In this Jan. 23, 2019, photo, a booth at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey offered information about food stamps at a food drive. (Julio Cortez/AP)

As many as 15,000 people in Baltimore could see their food stamp benefits slashed under a new Trump administration rule that tightens eligibility requirements.

Maryland recently joined more than a dozen states in suing to block the U.S. Department of Agriculture from moving forward with the cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But should the rule go into effect as planned this spring, it would have a devastating impact on Baltimore’s economy and the health of its residents, city officials wrote in a declaration of support for the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction.

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“By cutting SNAP benefits for thousands of the most vulnerable members of our community,” wrote Baltimore’s Food Policy Director Holly Freishtat, the change “will predictably result in a sicker and poorer state population.”

The Trump administration’s rule, finalized last month, would make it harder for states to waive some requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents who live in economically distressed areas.

Under current rules, such adults 18 to 49 years old who work less than 20 hours a week can receive only three months of food stamp benefits during a three-year period. But for areas with high rates of unemployment or a demonstrable lack of sufficient jobs, states can seek waivers of the time limit on benefits.

Historically such waivers have been granted to Baltimore City where, as of October, the average 24-month unemployment rate was 5.6% — significantly higher than the national unemployment rate of 3.8% in the same period.

The new rule imposes stricter criteria states must meet to issue waivers. Under the plan, states can issue waivers only if a local area has an unemployment rate of 6% or higher.

It now also classifies Baltimore City as part of a “labor market area" that includes Columbia and Towson, two wealthier communities. Factoring in their populations “dilutes the reality of unemployment in Baltimore," Freishtat wrote, resulting in a combined unemployment rate of 4%.

As of January 2019, waivers applied to 13 Maryland jurisdictions. All waivers will expire March 31, and none of those 13 areas likely would qualify under the revised regulations, according to the lawsuit filed Jan. 16 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Roughly 30,000 people in Maryland could be affected. It’s one of several changes to the food stamp program the Trump administration has pushed.

In December, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the new rule will help move people “from welfare to work.”

“We want to encourage people by giving them a helping hand, but not an infinitely giving hand,” he said.

Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young will join other mayors Friday at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington to discuss the new food stamp rule.

The federal change "ignores the fact that Baltimore is a poor city,” Young said in an interview. “We need all the help we can get to make sure our citizens have access to healthy food.”

Not only would an estimated 11,000 to 15,000 people lose food stamps, city officials say, but there would be an immediate economic impact as well. People spend food stamps at Baltimore stores, so the change would result in an annual loss of approximately $24 million to $33 million in spending.

“We’re going to see this money no longer in our food economy,” Freishtat said. “We’re going to see an impact on the economy, we’re going to see escalating food insecurity for our residents already struggling and we’re going to see increased healthcare costs and spending.”

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Young said it also could lead to increased crime, as desperate people might resort to stealing to get enough food, a point the city made in its Jan. 10 declaration in support of the request that a judge to halt the changes.

The Agriculture Department estimates the change would save roughly $5.5 billion over five years and cut benefits for about 688,000 food stamp recipients.

The multistate lawsuit filed Jan. 16 argues the rule contradicts Congress’ intent for the food stamp program and would result in thousands of people losing essential access to food.

“This rule will cause Marylanders to go hungry," state Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a statement. "It is unnecessary and heartless.”

Advocates say the change feeds on misconceptions that the people receiving food stamps are lazy or refuse to work.

Maryland Hunger Solutions Director Michael J. Wilson said many recipients are working but just not getting enough hours or earning enough money to escape poverty. The Trump administration’s reasoning, he said, “ignores the reality that many people face."

Many able-bodied people without dependents who live 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 20 hours per week requirement.

Chanteuse May, 39, of Baltimore said that on Wednesday alone, she applied to eight jobs. She’s been “constantly, constantly, constantly” searching for steady employment ever since a warehouse where she worked suddenly closed in September.

Two months after getting laid off, she started using food stamps. Now, the prospect that she could lose the ability to pay for healthy meals terrifies her.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said of the rule change. “You want to take away from those who are trying.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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