New Jersey is joining 13 other states plus the District of Columbia and New York City in suing the federal government over planned cuts to the Food Stamp program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last month implemented a new rule requiring able-bodied adults without dependents to work or enroll in job training 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.

New Jersey estimates that the rule will keep 12,000 residents off the welfare program, which the lawsuit describes as the "country’s primary weapon against hunger and an important safety net for low-income Americans.”

The three-month rule was first implemented in 1996 but 43 states have been able to get waivers for areas where the unemployment rate is more than 10% or that do not have "a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment for the individuals.”

The Trump administration says that the states were abusing these waivers because the national unemployment rate has been at record lows.

But the states’ lawsuit — which asks the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to overturn the rule on the grounds that it violates Congressional intent to let states be the better judges of their own labor markets and economic conditions — says that national statistics don’t paint an accurate picture. The complaint says as many as 850,000 people across the country may lose these benefits.

States seeking waivers have been able to do so when the unemployment rates of certain areas have had a 24-month average unemployment rate that is 20% higher than the national average.

New Jersey has a waiver, which expires at the end of March, for 15 counties where the combined unemployment rate is 5.2%, higher than the national rate of 3.5%.

The states would be forced to use geographic groupings known as Labor Market Areas. In the lawsuit, New York City is protesting this because the city’s Labor Market Area includes counties in North Jersey and Pennsylvania, including places that are 100 miles away with no access to mass transit, which would make it nearly impossible for city residents to find a job there.

New Jersey has had a monthly average of 368,000 adults and 319,000 children receiving SNAP benefits.

State Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson has argued to federal officials that the waiver allows the state to transition people off Food Stamps. The waivers also help people with limited or no education or skills or who have barriers getting effective job training. The department supervises the county-administered program.

The Trump administration has proposed other rule changes to the program that the state estimates would affect 68,000 people. Those proposals include eliminating automatic enrollment for people already receiving other benefits and reducing the amount of deductions for utility payments.

The state has estimated that the rule changes would cut $33 million from the local economy.

”We are committed to helping everyone in New Jersey succeed in a strong and fair economy,” Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said Thursday in a written statement announcing the lawsuit. “But too many people still struggle to make ends meet, and food insecurity only makes it harder. Taking food off the table of someone who’s struggling won’t help them thrive, and in this case, it violates federal law.”

The other state plaintiffs in the suit against the Department of Agriculture and Secretary Sonny Perdue are New York, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.

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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.