WASHINGTON — The Trump administration, brushing aside tens of thousands of protest letters, gave final approval Wednesday to a rule that will remove nearly 700,000 people from the federal food-stamp program by strictly enforcing federal work requirements.

The rule, which was proposed by the Department of Agriculture in February, would press states to enforce work requirements for able-bodied adults without children that governors have routinely been allowed to waive, especially for areas in economic distress. The economy has improved under the Trump administration, the department argued, and assistance to unemployed, able-bodied adults was no longer necessary in a strong job market.

The change is expected to shave nearly $5.5 billion from food stamp spending over five years.

“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.”

Right now, in a state without a waiver, able-bodied adults without children cannot receive food stamps for more than three months in a 36-month period without working or participating in a work program. States can grant waivers to areas that have insufficient jobs or a 24-month average unemployment rate that is at least 20% above the national average.

Under the rule, effective April 1, 2020, an area eligible for a waiver would have to have a 24-month average unemployment rate that is not only 20% above the national average but also at least 6%.

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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 Stacy Dean, vice president for 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 Agriculture Department efforts to scale back the food stamp program, and so far, Trump administration officials appear unmoved by the protests flooding in. More than 140,000 public comments were submitted on the rule that was made final on Wednesday, and they were overwhelmingly negative.

“The Trump administration is driving the vulnerable into hunger just as the Christmas season approaches,” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Democratic leader, said Wednesday. “It is heartless. It is cruel. It exposes a deep and shameful cruelness, and hypocrisy in this administration.”

The department has also proposed a rule that would close what it calls a loophole that allows people with incomes up to 200% of the poverty level — about $50,000 for a family of four — to receive food stamps. The rule would also prevent households with more than $2,250 in assets, or $3,500 for a household with a disabled adult, from receiving food stamps. Those changes would strip nearly 3 million people of their benefits, the department said, and nearly 1 million children would lose automatic eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals. The proposal received 75,000 public comments, which were overwhelmingly negative.

Another proposal would cut $4.5 billion from the program over five years by adjusting eligibility formulas, affecting 1 in 5 struggling families. That one received 90,000 comments.

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The other two rules will most likely be approved before the presidential election.

Ellen Vollinger, the food stamp director at the Food Research and Action Center, said the Trump administration was doing through executive action what Republicans could not do through legislation. Fights over farm bills in recent years have centered on efforts by House Republicans to cut eligibility or add more stringent work requirements. But a coalition of liberal Democrats and farm state Republicans has repeatedly beaten back those changes.

“It just seems stunning to see the department all of the sudden introduce a very significant change in what metrics and areas can be considered in waivers when Congress didn’t make any of those changes,” Vollinger said.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as the food stamps program, has two sets of work requirements for participants, one for parents and another for able-bodied adults without children. Wednesday’s rule makes it more difficult for states to waive the three-month time limit for adults without children.

States have typically waived the three-month time limit for one or two years in areas that have a lack of sufficient jobs or 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% of the population.

Dean said the final rule was actually made tougher than the initial proposal. “It makes it much harder for states with high unemployment to qualify for waivers during a national recession,” she said.

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee’s subcommittee on nutrition, said in a statement that instead of “considering hungry individuals and their unique struggles and needs, the department has chosen to paint them with the broadest brush, demonizing them as lazy and undeserving.”

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the incentives in the old waiver system encouraged states to petition the federal government for their citizens.

“States do not pay one dime in the cost of food stamps,” he said. “They didn’t even pay for most of the administrative costs. Therefore we should have a federal work requirement on a federally funded program.”

Without a waiver, able-bodied adults without children must work or participate in a work program for 20 hours or more a week to qualify for food stamps. That requirement can be difficult for people who are already homeless or have transportation issues, some poverty experts said, especially for low-wage workers who often are not offered 20 hours a week of steady work.

The rule also prevents states from defining what constitutes an “area” of economic distress. Instead, states must rely on receive waivers for labor market areas defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Anti-poverty experts say this will most likely make it difficult for cities surrounded by affluent counties to receive the waiver, such as Detroit.

If the Agriculture Department had finalized all three rules in 2018, nearly 4 million people would have lost food assistance, and nearly 1 million schoolchildren would have lost automatic eligibility for free or reduced price school meals, according to a new study by the Urban Institute.