WASHINGTON — The Department of Agriculture, brushing aside tens of thousands of protest letters, gave final approval on Wednesday to a new rule that would remove nearly 755,000 people from the federal food-stamp program.
The rule, which was proposed in February, makes it more difficult for states to allow able-bodied adults without children to receive food assistance for more than three months out of a 36-month period without working. More than 140,000 public comments flooded in before the department’s comment period closed in April, and they were overwhelmingly negative.
The department said in February that the granting of state waivers needed to be stricter because the economy had improved under the Trump administration and assistance to unemployed, able-bodied adults was no longer necessary in a strong job market.
“Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream,” Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary said. “We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand.”
But anti-poverty groups said the administration’s focus on the unemployment rate was misleading.
“The overall unemployment rate is really a measure of the whole labor market and not people without a high school diploma who are incredibly poor and may lack transportation,” said Stacey Dean, the vice president of food assistance policy at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “We’re talking about a different group who just face a very different labor market.”
The rule is the first of three department efforts to scale back the food stamps program. Mr. Perdue said the changes were an effort to encourage self-sufficiency, save taxpayer money and ensure that only those who truly need benefits receive them.
The department has also proposed a rule that would close what it calls a loophole that allows people with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty level — about $50,000 for a family of four — to receive food stamps. It also wants to prevent households with more than $2,250 in assets, or $3,500 for a household with a disabled adult, from receiving food stamps. That would strip nearly 3 million people of their benefits. That proposal received 75,000 public comments, which were overwhelmingly negative.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as the food stamps program, has two sets of work requirements for participants, one for parents and one for able-bodied adults without children. The finalized rule makes it more difficult for states to waive the time limit for the second set of work requirements.
But states have typically waived the three-month time limit for one or two years in areas that have a lack of sufficient jobs or that have high unemployment rates. Every state except Delaware has used the waiver in the past 23 years. After the 2008 recession, the time limit was suspended in areas representing nearly 90 percent of the population. Governors have used the waivers to ensure their poorest residents still have access to food during an economic downturn.