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Senate panel wants to boost pay for low-income troops

A provision would increase the incomes of servicemembers earning less than 150 percent of the poverty line

Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth says her own experience as a child and as a servicemember prompted her to try to help low-income troops.
Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth says her own experience as a child and as a servicemember prompted her to try to help low-income troops. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s new defense authorization bill would expand a program enacted last year to help low-income military families make ends meet and feed themselves — but advocates say legislative fixes to date have fallen short of what’s needed.

The “basic needs allowance,” as enacted in the fiscal 2022 defense authorization, would make up the difference between a servicemember’s annual salary and 130 percent of the federal poverty line.

By comparison, the new Senate authorization bill, which the Armed Services Committee approved Thursday, includes a provision written by Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth that would cover troops up to 150 percent of the federal poverty line.

“As someone whose family relied on public nutrition programs after my father lost his job, and who served in uniform for most of my adult life, I’m so glad this year’s NDAA will expand the Basic Needs Allowance to help make sure more of our servicemembers and their families have enough to eat,” Duckworth wrote in an email.

Defining the problem

It is not clear how many military families are benefiting from the current program or how many more would benefit from expanding the initiative.

Surveys of military personnel have suggested that scores of thousands of military families are suffering from nutritional shortfalls for lack of money. The Military Family Advisory Network, a research and support-services organization, reported last year that one in five military families was wrestling with food insecurity — potentially almost half a million families. Rising inflation since then may have worsened the problem.

Abby J. Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, said via email that her organization is pleased with the new Senate provision.

“This is an unmistakable signal that our leaders in the Senate and across government agencies recognize what MAZON has been saying for nearly a decade — that military families are facing food insecurity and often need help meeting their basic needs,” Leibman said. “The military hunger crisis is undeniable; it’s no longer up for debate.”

Lobbying campaign

However, Leibman and others say Congress has more work to do to alleviate the problem. One positive step, she said, would be to exclude a servicemember’s housing allowance from the income calculations done to determine the size of a servicemember’s basic needs allowance.

Duckworth, too, has supported leaving housing money out of the income tally.

Under current law, the service secretaries are allowed to exclude housing money from basic needs allowance income calculations in areas where the secretary decides that the cost of living is particularly high.

Still, even if Congress had excluded the housing money from the basic needs allowance income calculation, the Congressional Budget Office estimated last year it would have enabled 3,000 families to get an average of $400 a month — still probably only a fraction of the number of families surveys suggest are needy.

Another good move, Leibman argued, would be to exclude those same housing payments from servicemember income calculations under the Agriculture Department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

“Congress must now adopt MAZON’s recommendations for the next Farm Bill to ensure that military families can access SNAP and don’t have to turn to food pantries around the country,” Leibman said. “Not only is this the right thing to do — it’s a matter of readiness, retention, recruitment, and national security.”

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