A new rule implemented this month by the Trump administration will cut an estimated 12,000 people in New Jersey from the food stamp program.

The new rule requires that able-bodied adults without dependents work at least 20 hours a week in order to be eligible for more than three months of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program assistance in a three-year period.

The rule is among several changes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed for the program. The state Department of Human Services, which administers the program locally, has estimated that as many as 68,000 people could be affected by the changes, which include eliminating automatic enrollment for people already receiving other benefits and reducing the amount of deductions for utility payments.

This year the state has had an average of 368,000 adults and 319,000 children receiving SNAP benefits each month, a number that has been decreasing in recent years.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has called the proposed changes "common-sense policy" and a return to “self-sufficiency through the dignity of work.”

Federal law has long required able-bodied adults without dependents to work 80 hours a month in order to be eligible for food stamps for more than three months in a three-year period. But states were able to get waivers for areas that suffered with unemployment rates of more than 10%.

The Trump administration said the states were abusing the loophole and that the number of waivers should have gone down along with the unemployment rates across the country. Nearly half of the 3.8 million able-bodied adults without dependents on food stamps were in 43 states with such waivers.

State Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson said in correspondence to federal authorities that the rule changes would mean thousands of people and families would go hungry.

She said that an estimated loss in $33 million in SNAP assistance to the state would be “a cost far too large to be shouldered by food pantries and volunteers" and one that would have an economic ripple-effect on grocery stores and retailers.

Johnson said that the food stamp waivers allowed the state to "phase down" benefits rather than cutting off people as they got jobs that paid just marginally better. The phasing down allowed people and families to save money to afford housing and child car costs.

"Families that suffer job loss or short-term financial crisis should not have to immediately liquidate modest savings to get critical food assistance," Johnson said in a letter to Perdue.

“This ability for the State to lift the program’s income eligibility thresholds to allow for a smoother phase-down of benefits as earnings increase is particularly important in a state like New Jersey, where costs for housing and other essentials exceed the national average."

Johnson also said the proposed changes would hurt children because families enrolled in food stamps are automatically eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program.

The state also argued that the changes would raise bureaucratic costs, considering that the automatic enrollment for food stamps has saved states an estimated 7% in administrative expenses.

“New Jersey has been able to use the flexibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance or SNAP program to help individuals without dependents who face challenging economic circumstances continue to receive SNAP benefits beyond a three-month limit. To take away that flexibility at a time when the New Jersey economy is improving and we are helping people get on a better financial footing is simply wrong," Johnson said in a written statement earlier this month.

“This will set back the work we have done to help these New Jerseyans and will put more pressure on food banks and others across the state to try to fill in the gaps. It is simply bad policy.”

Enter your number to get the NJ 101.5 app

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

Sign up for the NJ1015.com Newsletter

Get the best of NJ1015.com delivered to your inbox every day.