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Senators push to expand food aid for low-income troops

Legislation would enable more troops to qualify by not counting housing allowance as part of their income

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)

A bipartisan group of 14 senators is backing new legislation to change the rules for federal nutrition assistance so that more low-income troops and their families qualify. 

Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former Army helicopter pilot, told CQ Roll Call she is filing the bill today to alter the rules governing the Agriculture Department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Her bill would ensure that a servicemember’s housing allowance, a stipend to cover most of the cost of an off-base residence, no longer is included in that person’s income. 

The bill’s cosponsors include Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and a dozen Democrats, including several senior members of the Armed Services and Appropriations panels.

It is not clear how much the change to the nutrition program’s rules would cost — or how many military families it might help. But Duckworth said that she believes her bill would help thousands of hungry servicemembers and their dependents. 

She said the fight to feed military families is personal. When she was growing up, she said, her family had to go on food stamps.

“I fainted at school because I was so hungry,” she said. “And I had a high school teacher who was feeding me — keeping me late after class with made-up tasks for me to do, just so he could feed me.”

Thousands of families affected

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.

Abby J. Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group, said many military families are shut out of the federal government’s principal nutrition assistance program because of the rule on the housing allowance.

“If Congress is truly committed to supporting our troops, it must stop forcing military families to suffer from hunger needlessly and pass this bill without delay,” Leibman said in a statement.

Josh Protas, the anti-hunger group’s vice president of public policy, said the Agriculture Department already has the statutory authority to change the rule without a new law and his organization has made this point to leaders in the department.

Question of ‘basic needs’

The fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act established a basic needs allowance to ensure no servicemember’s income falls below 130 percent of the poverty line. Duckworth was the Senate’s leading advocate for that provision, and in the House it was Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif. 

But the final NDAA provision may not prove as effective as it might have been, anti-hunger advocates say. The provision did not require that housing allowances be excluded from income calculation. Instead, the law leaves it up to the service secretaries to determine whether to include the housing allowance in the tally in regions where housing costs and other living expenses are deemed to be high. 

In addition, the new law says servicemembers must apply for the aid. For many of them, a stigma is still attached to getting help, so this may deter many from applying, the advocates add.

Duckworth said the basic needs allowance provision only lasts for five years anyway, whereas she called changing the nutrition assistance law a more “foundational” solution.

She also said she is open to considering ways to increase pay levels for enlisted personnel. 

The Agriculture Committee — not the Armed Services Committee, where Duckworth serves — has jurisdiction over the nutrition assistance program, which was formerly called food stamps. Duckworth said she has discussed her bill with Debbie Stabenow, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture panel.

A similar but broader measure is pending in the House. That bill — by Georgia Democrat Sanford D. Bishop Jr. and Nebraska Republican Jeff Fortenberry — would create a new benefits program for military families. It would not require that housing allowances count toward income. The measure has been referred to the Armed Services and Agriculture committees.

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