Advocates are pushing for a new military allowance to help bridge the gap for junior military families who are struggling financially.
“No child should go hungry, let alone a child of our service members, yet that is a reality of thousands of military families,” said Rep. Susan Davis, D- Calif., during a Wednesday press call.
In the San Diego area, she said, the cost of living is high, and while service members get a housing allowance, many families experience financial difficulty. But military families across the country are experiencing food insecurity, she said.
“The military pay system is not designed for junior enlisted members with families in high cost areas,” Davis said, noting the problem is exacerbated by the military lifestyle. Spouses often have difficulty getting a job because of frequent moves, when it’s all the more critical to have a second income.
Erika Tebbens, wife of a Navy veteran and an advocate for the new military allowance, said when she and her husband were living near Seattle, Wash., she was underemployed and working 32 hours a week. She was nervous about making ends meet, although they were careful with their finances. They weren’t able to get base housing, but made sure their housing allowance covered the cost of monthly rent and utilities of their apartment off base. Despite the additional money she was bringing in to the household, it was a struggle, she said.
“While I never expected to be flush with cash as a military spouse, I always assumed, perhaps naively, when my husband joined that we would always have our basic needs met,” Tebbens said. She quickly found out that was not the case, she said.
The family was eligible for WIC benefits when she was pregnant and for her baby. Not so with Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.
“When I reluctantly applied for SNAP I was incredibly embarrassed that I was even having to apply. When they told me I didn’t qualify because they were counting our housing allowance as part of our earned income, all I remember was just sobbing. I don’t even remember leaving the office because I had been turned down for something I felt I didn’t even want to be asking for in the first place. It was a very last ditch effort for us.”
Her husband left the Navy in 2012, after more than eight years of service. She felt lonely and ashamed at the time of this financial struggle, she said, but has since found others who have been in her situation. “If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone..... We simply must do better for our military families.”
The problem has been difficult to quantify. One national advocacy group estimates that between 20,000 and 30,000 military families struggle with food insecurity, but don’t qualify for federal food assistance.
"More accurate data collected by DoD would be very helpful to fully understand the scope and severity of this problem,” said Josh Protas, vice president of public policy for MAZON: a Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy organization working to end hunger in the United States and Israel.
But new numbers from the Congressional Budget Office estimate that about half as man service members, or a little more than 10,000, are in this situation, based on its analysis of DoD data about service members’ pay and family size. Those who qualify have an income that’s no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines -- which are based on family income as well as family size. (It’s not known if spouse income is considered in those 10,200 service members; if spouses have income, the higher total income might disqualify the family.)
Those service members would generally qualify if the housing allowance weren’t included in calculating their income. And that issue is part of the problem, Protas said.
Those in junior ranks with larger families are generally more affected.
The military Basic Allowance for Housing isn’t treated as income for most federal assistance programs, but it is considered income in qualifying for SNAP benefits, he said.
“As a result, younger enlisted service members with large households are disqualified from getting the help they need from SNAP when their BAH gets treated as income,” Protas said.
MAZON’s initiative, called the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance, is included in the House version of the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization bill, but it’s not included in the Senate version. Davis said the goal is to make sure that it’s included in the final version of the bill as representatives of the House and Senate work out the differences during the conference process.
According to an analysis of the proposal by the Congressional Budget Office, the 10,200 qualifying service members would receive an average allowance of $400 each month. The allowances would cost DoD about $175 million over the four years from 2021 through 2024.
The House version addresses only fiscal 2020, authorizing an additional $15 million for the allowance for fiscal 2020.
“The truth is, we don’t know exactly how many military families experience food insecurity,” said Protas. “And despite calls by the [Government Accountability Office] and Congress for the Department of Defense to collect data about this to inform efforts to address the problem, to date there is little indication of progress on this front by DoD."
The administration voiced its opposition to this proposal, describing it as an "unnecessary entitlement.” The White House statement on the House version of the defense bill contends service members already receive appropriate pay.
“Most junior enlisted members receive pay that is between the 95th and 99th percentiles relative to their private-sector peers,” the administration stated.
The proposal would base the allowance on the service member’s household size - potentially including roommates and unrelated individuals, according to the White House policy statement. It would raise fairness concerns, officials stated, because it would exclude members of the Coast Guard, members of the Active Guard and Reserve, and service members stationed outside the U.S..
Here’s how it would work
According to the basic needs allowance proposal, the monthly allowance would be equal to: 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, minus the gross household income of the service member during the preceding year, divided by 12. The guidelines are also adjusted based on number of family members in the household. These are the guidelines used for the SNAP program.
Most income, including the spouse’s income, is included in these calculations. But under this proposed program, the housing allowance wouldn’t be included in the income calculation for the basic needs allowance, unlike the calculations for SNAP.
- For a family of three, the current income cap for qualifying (at 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline) would be $2,252 a month. By Military Times calculations, an E3 with two years of service with a spouse and child would receive about $146 a month in the proposed allowance.
- An E5 with more than four years of service, with a spouse and three children would qualify for this proposed allowance. The income qualifying cap for that family of five is $3,188 a month. Military Times estimates the allowance would be about $384 a month.
A similar concept, the DoD Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance, or FSSA, program, was created by Congress in 2000 as an alternative to food stamps for military personnel. To be eligible for FSSA, the household monthly gross income had to be less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, based on household size.
DoD discontinued the program in 2016. Few applied for it, and few qualified for it based on income, which also counted the housing allowance. Advocates also contend that few service members applied for the extra money because they had to apply through their chain of command.
With this basic needs allowance, the service member wouldn’t have to involve the chain of command. The service member would be automatically notified by the Defense Finance and Accounting Service if their income places them below 130 percent of the federal poverty level. The service member would be required to present any evidence of additional income that might disqualify the family. Service members who did qualify would begin receiving the allowance automatically.
‘It’s far more common than people realize’
MAZON has identified food pantries that are located near almost every installation, Protas said. These food pantries are open to everyone in the civilian community, including military retirees, veterans, Guard and Reserve members.
“There’s nothing wrong with turning to a food pantry for emergency assistance in time of need, but there’s no reason those serving in our armed forces should have to do so on a regular basis," he said.
Service members and family members have told MAZON that they turn to food pantries on or near military bases in embarrassment, when they are “truly desperate,” Protas said, not in an effort to stretch their budget.
Addressing the problem of food insecurity in military families has been a priority of the National Military Family Association for years, said Eileen Huck, deputy government relations director. “While the majority of families may never struggle with food insecurity, it’s far more common than people realize,” she said.
After putting out a call for comments about families’ experiences, the organization received dozens of responses, Huck said. One typical response came from a spouse who said that as a junior enlisted family, she often worried about being able to afford groceries. She bought “huge cans of ravioli” to keep in the cupboard because she knew her money would be gone when the next paycheck arrived, Huck said.
The proposed basic needs allowance would go a long way toward reducing the stress of these vulnerable families, Huck said.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.