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Federal judge blocks Trump rule that could have cut food stamps for nearly 700,000 people amid coronavirus

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

(CNN) -- A federal judge has temporarily blocked a Trump administration federal rule from going into effect next month that could have seen nearly 700,000 people lose access to food stamps, noting in part a need for flexibility as state and federal officials work to address nutritional needs during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Especially now, as a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP, is essential," Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the US District Court in Washington, DC, wrote as part of her opinion issued Friday.

In an order handed down Friday, the Howell granted a preliminary injunction and a stay on portions of a federal rule from the US Department of Agriculture. The rule, announced in December, would require more food stamp recipients to work in order to receive benefits by limiting states' ability to waive existing work mandates.

The final USDA rule was expected to take effect on April 1. The requirement could result in 688,000 non-disabled, working-age adults without dependents losing their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, according to the USDA's estimates.

Howell called aspects of the USDA rule "likely unlawful because they are arbitrary and capricious."

CNN has reached out to the USDA for comment.

A coalition of 20 attorneys general, led by DC and the City of New York filed a lawsuit in January, challenging the USDA rule. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue had argued that the rule "lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans re-enter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them."

DC Attorney General Karl A. Racine on Friday called the court's injunction a "major victory" for America's "most vulnerable residents who rely on SNAP to eat."

"The Trump administration's rule would have forced hundreds of thousands of people who could not find work, including 13,000 District residents, to go hungry. That could have been catastrophic in the midst of our current public health emergency," Racine said in a statement Friday.

New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a separate statement that "at a time of national crisis, this decision is a win for common sense and basic human decency."

"This rule is cruel to its core and runs counter to who we are and what we represent as a nation. We lend a helping hand to give those struggling to pull themselves out of poverty a shot at succeeding in that endeavor," she said. "This rule would accomplish just the opposite, making those who already worry about ending their days hungry even more vulnerable, and as we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, the effects of this rule would be more destructive than ever."

The rule is one of three Trump administration efforts to overhaul SNAP and tighten the rules governing who qualifies for aid. More than 36 million Americans currently receive SNAP benefits.

On Friday, the House passed a coronavirus relief bill, negotiated between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Trump administration, that includes over $1 billion to programs that provide food to low-income mothers, pregnant women, senior citizens, and local food banks.

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