In a memo to the service secretaries this week, defense officials stated that due to high inflation, the department would consider “extraordinary contractual relief” to help businesses cope with high inflation. Although it has become axiomatic throughout our culture — in airports, at sports events, in the halls of Congress — to thank members of the military for their service, one has to wonder why the Defense Department is not writing this same memo to Congress to ask for their assistance in helping low-income military families cope with these “extraordinary circumstances.”
There is plenty of evidence that relief is needed. This summer, DoD released a roadmap, Strengthening Food Security in the Force, which reveals that a shocking 24 percent of active duty service members experience some level of food insecurity, and it acknowledges the connections between hunger and mission readiness, troop retention and recruitment. It should be noted that this survey was done before the recent spike in inflation, so it is likely that this estimate is low.
With inflation now hovering between 8 and 9 percent, low-income active, guard and reserve service members are paying a painful price, often having to choose between putting gas in the tank, paying for child care or feeding their families.
One way to rectify this would be granting service members larger pay raises. However, in the last two years, the Pentagon has not prioritized making this change. Service members received only a 2.7 percent pay raise for 2022, paling amid surging inflation rates over 8 percent, forcing many military families into food insecurity in the face of what is effectively a 5 percent pay cut.
But our government leaders still have time to address this crisis, and several options are available to them. The Pentagon should go on record with the Congress, in the same manner that it is supporting the defense industry, that our low-income military families need immediate assistance. The Defense Department’s leadership should publicly articulate positions on three amendments pending in the 2023 defense authorization bill.
The first provision would improve a new program that was created in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance, which will provide income supplements to reduce food insecurity and economic hardship in our military forces. But when Congress created this program, they did not adopt the recommendation from several nonprofit organizations to exclude a service member’s Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, from income in eligibility calculations. Right now, a family living on post would be eligible for the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance, while an identical family living off post would likely not be eligible. Military families should not be treated differently just because of their housing arrangement.
The second provision would raise the income eligibility for the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance to 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which would extend a more adequate benefit to more low-income military families. This change is especially important in the face of unprecedented inflation, given the effective pay cut of 5 percent hitting military families now.
Lastly, the House-passed version of the defense authorization bill includes a one-time inflation bonus of 2.4 percent for service members who earn less than $45,000 per year. This must be included in the final NDAA to provide much needed support to those military families who need help the most.
These three adjustments are essential to address the current military hunger crisis. We know it is a crisis because food pantries operate on or near every military installation in the U.S., scrambling to serve military families who cannot regularly afford nutritious food.
Even with these improvements, while urgent and essential, the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance and the inflation bonus are not permanent solutions to the real challenge: We do not pay our junior-enlisted personnel enough to support families. Our leaders must acknowledge that military compensation policy has not kept pace with the changing needs and circumstances of enlisted service members nor the cost of living.
The Biden administration has a unique opportunity to address the harsh reality of military hunger and to advance real solutions at the upcoming White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. The costs of ignoring military hunger are profound and much greater than any expense our government would incur to address the problem.
It is long past time for our nation to move beyond platitudes and hollow promises. The Pentagon leadership should support our troops and families with at least as much zeal as they support the defense industry. Our government must ensure that service members can feed themselves and their families. That is surely the bare minimum we can do to truly express our thanks for their service.
Abby J. Leibman is president & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national anti-hunger organization that has been working for over 10 years to develop and advance policy solutions to address military hunger.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. John Ferrari, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a former director of program analysis and evaluation for the Army.
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