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Democrats push to help hungry troops, as Pentagon offers limited aid

President Biden supports aid but hedges on how much to give

Members of the California National Guard sort food at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley in San Jose, Calif., in March 2020.
Members of the California National Guard sort food at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Silicon Valley in San Jose, Calif., in March 2020. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

With scores of thousands of military personnel reportedly having trouble feeding their families, Democratic lawmakers in both chambers urged leaders of the Armed Services committees in letters Wednesday not to stint in providing relief for “the scourge of military hunger.”

The new congressional push came on the same day that Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III announced a series of moves to address “the economic security of our force.”

On Capitol Hill, in a letter obtained by CQ Roll Call, 13 Democratic senators argued that Congress should send President Joe Biden a National Defense Authorization Act that includes a House-passed provision creating a “basic needs allowance” for low-income troops, not a similar — but less generous — Senate approach.

“The physical and mental impacts of this type of household food insecurity ultimately impact servicemembers’ ability to perform their mission, thereby compromising military readiness,” wrote the senators, including several who serve on the Armed Services and Appropriations panels.

The letter was signed by Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who was the leading champion of the basic needs allowance in the Senate. Also signing were Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Patty Murray of Washington, Jacky Rosen of Nevada, Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Alex Padilla of California and Jon Ossoff of Georgia.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Panetta of California, the author of the House provision, and 22 of his Democratic House colleagues sent a virtually identical letter to leaders of the Armed Services committees.

“Although Congress continues to raise the salaries of those who serve in our military, we need to do more to ensure that servicemembers in need of public benefits are given every opportunity to access them,” Panetta told CQ Roll Call in a statement.

‘Economic security’

At a Pentagon news conference Wednesday, Austin unveiled steps to address the recent economic effects of the pandemic on military families, even though experts have said for years, including prior to the coronavirus’s arrival, that some enlisted personnel are suffering nutritional and other challenges for want of money.

Austin said he is addressing the rising cost of living by raising, in some areas, housing allowances or reimbursement for temporary housing.

As for hunger, Austin unveiled a new online “toolkit” to help servicemembers access food and to aid commanders in identifying personnel who might face such challenges, as well as new materials to help servicemembers better manage finances.  

Lastly, Austin tasked the Pentagon’s undersecretary for personnel and readiness, Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr., to report back in 90 days with a plan to “strengthen food security in the Force.”

“Our men and women in uniform have enough to worry about,” Austin told reporters. “Basic necessities like food and housing shouldn’t be among them.”

Abby J. Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, applauded Austin’s acknowledgement of a problem that she said has been long apparent. But she said sharing resources about financial literacy is not a robust enough response. 

Leibman said the Pentagon must come out in support of the proposed basic needs allowance. “We need tangible, long-term solutions,” Leibman told CQ Roll Call in a statement.

House NDAA is more generous than Senate’s

Regardless of the Pentagon’s efforts, lawmakers are poised to provide more money for needy military families. The only question now appears to be: How much?  

The House passed its version of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act in September, and the Senate hopes to debate its version as soon as this week.

Both the House and Senate NDAAs would authorize the Pentagon to create a basic needs allowance, which would ensure that no servicemember’s income is less than 130 percent of the poverty line.

However, the House bill would bar the department from including in income calculations the military’s housing allowance, which defrays 95 percent of the cost of servicemembers’ off-base housing. The housing allowance can amount to thousands of dollars per year.

The Senate bill, by contrast, would include “all household income derived from any source” — meaning it would consider the housing assistance in the income calculation.

The Senate’s bill would help far fewer people as a result. It would give about 500 families an average of $200 a month, at a cost to the government of $1 million a year, according to Congressional Budget Office figures. 

The House bill would help 3,000 families with $400 a month on average, costing just over $14 million per year.

The $13 million of additional cost in the House provision amounts to .002 percent of the overall $778 billion budget endorsed by both chambers’ NDAAs.

Because the Agriculture Department includes the housing allowance in its calculation of income for determining eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, few U.S. military families qualify, experts say.

If the Senate provision is adopted, it would repeat that mistake, the lawmakers argued.

“Supporting the House-approved provision in the FY22 NDAA will help correct the current flaw in federal law that prevents too many military families from qualifying for needed nutrition assistance and perpetuates preventable hardship,” the members wrote. “We urge the Committee to adopt the House language and end the scourge of military hunger.”

Scores of thousands hungry?

The problem of lack of nutrition due to insufficient income among enlisted military personnel appears to be many times greater than even the House bill’s aid for several thousand servicemembers would address.

According to Feeding America, an anti-hunger group, as many as 160,000 active-duty enlisted servicemembers have trouble feeding their families.

Similarly, a 2019 Military Family Advisory Network survey suggests the number of hungry active-duty military personnel is greater than 125,000, and that does not include their family members.

The nutrition shortfalls are most acute among low-ranking enlisted personnel with dependents, experts say.

The pandemic, by all accounts, has worsened the problem, particularly as it has made it more difficult for spouses of servicemembers to get or keep jobs.

What’s more, experts testified to a House panel this month that the problem of hunger and the rising rates of suicide in the ranks may be connected.

Biden supports a basic needs allowance but has said the question of whether to include housing costs in servicemembers’ income requires further study.

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