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With thousands of hungry troops, DOD urges limited income hikes

Many lawmakers and advocates say Pentagon is not doing nearly enough to fight food insecurity in the ranks

Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., is among the handful of lawmakers pressing the Pentagon to do more about food insecurity among U.S. troops.
Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., is among the handful of lawmakers pressing the Pentagon to do more about food insecurity among U.S. troops. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Top Pentagon officials, in a document sent to lawmakers recently, backed higher pay increases for low-income servicemembers than the department’s leaders have publicly endorsed — but far from enough, critics say, to combat widespread hunger in the ranks. 

A Nov. 11 spreadsheet sent to Congress by Defense Department Comptroller Mike McCord listed nearly $30 billion in “highest priority” programs for the defense panels to consider in the fiscal 2023 defense authorization and appropriations bills. Most of the money, nearly $24 billion, would go to offset inflation, and the list also includes more spending on missiles, munitions and fighter jets.

The department’s document recommended more generous pay enhancements than Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has publicly proposed. The new behind-the-scenes recommendations include a “basic needs allowance” to keep troops’ incomes at 150 percent of the poverty line, which would be an increase above current law. Also included is an “inflation bonus” for 2023 for lower-income uniformed personnel that amounts to 3 percent of base pay, more than the House or Senate fiscal 2023 NDAAs would provide.

The document, obtained by CQ Roll Call, supports other compensation boosts: increases in housing allowances, higher payments to servicemembers to offset moving expenses, lower commissary prices and more, most of which Austin has previously proposed. 

Some elements of the Nov. 11 comptroller document were described in a Bloomberg News story earlier this month.

‘Reduced food intake’

It is not yet clear what negotiators who are writing the final NDAA and appropriations omnibus for fiscal 2023 will say on these provisions.

However, many members of Congress and advocacy groups say the proposals would not do nearly enough to address troops’ troubles with finances — and nutrition. 

While the problem of hunger in the military is not new, they say, it appears to be worsening, especially amid 2022’s unusually high inflation. In fact, the latest official Defense Department data, based on a survey of military families, indicates 1 in 4 active-duty U.S. military personnel — an estimated 286,800 people, not to mention their family members — periodically face food shortfalls. Of those, perhaps 119,000 regularly experience outright hunger — “multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake,” the July report to Congress stated.  

The survey data was compiled in 2020, during the pandemic but before this year’s surge of inflation made it even harder for lower-income people to make ends meet. 

It is the largest government estimate in recent memory on hunger in the military, experts said. 

Illusory income

Even the more generous legislative proposals endorsed privately by the Pentagon are insufficient to deal with this mushrooming problem, critics in Congress and among advocacy groups said.

The inflation bonus, for one thing, covers just 2023, they said. And, most significantly, the basic needs allowance is a pilot program that requires that housing allowances be included in calculating income, a stipulation that results in excluding most of the servicemembers who need help, according to several lawmakers from both parties.  

“In high-cost areas like San Diego, the Basic Allowance for Housing barely covers the cost of rent — so it’s ridiculous to count it as income and create the illusion that service members and their families somehow make too much money to qualify for other benefits,” Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee who has championed expansive income help for servicemembers, told CQ Roll Call in a statement. “We know that, in reality, military families are still struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table; they’ve already made incredible sacrifices for our country and the least we can do is make sure they know where their next meal comes from.”

‘Unintended barriers’

Similarly, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the former House Republican conference chair, also opposes including the housing stipend as part of a servicemember’s income for purposes of determining income aid. 

McMorris Rodgers and California Democrat Jimmy Panetta, a House Armed Services Committee member, wrote legislation (HR 9069) this year that would require that a servicemember’s housing payment be excluded from a basic needs allowance income calculation. 

The House’s defense authorization bill, likewise, forbids including the housing money in income calculations for the basic needs allowance.

But the Senate’s fiscal 2023 NDAA does not contain any such provision. The chambers were similarly divided in the fiscal 2022 cycle, and the Senate’s view carried the day.

“Cathy is committed to making sure those who put on the uniform to keep us safe are able to feed their families,” including raising the basic needs allowance, said Kyle VonEnde, communications director for McMorris Rodgers, via email. “It also means making a serious effort to cut the red tape that is preventing military families from accessing the critical safety-net nutrition programs that too many need right now, as we work to get our economy back on track.” 

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., has been the leading proponent of expanding the basic needs allowance on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Duckworth, an Army veteran, has talked publicly about her family having to rely on food stamps when she was growing up. She has yet to persuade her Senate Armed Services colleagues to stop requiring the counting of housing money as income under the basic needs allowance, but not for lack of trying.

“Far too many of our military families experience hunger because of unintended barriers that make them unable to access essential nutrition assistance programs,” Duckworth told CQ Roll Call. 

Similarly, Abby J. Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which has been actively involved in addressing this issue, said Washington’s efforts to date have been lacking. 

“Temporary adjustments and one-time bonuses are band aids on a much bigger systemic issue that Congress and the Pentagon have failed to adequately acknowledge and address,” Leibman said via email.

Dueling NDAAs

Hunger in the military is not new. More than two decades ago, the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., shined a bright spotlight on servicemembers who needed food stamps. More recently, during the coronavirus pandemic, the problem became more acute, particularly as the shutdowns made the already difficult challenges military spouses face finding work even harder. 

Last year, the fiscal 2022 NDAA created the basic needs allowance, which mandated that no servicemember’s income could dip below 130 percent of the poverty line. Austin endorsed the 130 percent target in September. The new allowance will begin in January.

This year, the Senate’s fiscal 2023 NDAA proposed increasing the percentage to 150 percent, and the Nov. 11 Pentagon document shows the department supports the 150 percent proposal. 

The fiscal 2022 law states that the basic needs allowance is based on a calculation of income that includes a servicemember’s housing allowance. The housing allowance, which typically amounts to thousands of dollars each year, is paid to cover the estimated cost of local housing; if the servicemember lives on base, the allowance is not added to that person’s paychecks.

Critics of the current approach point out that the housing allowance doesn’t count toward a servicemember’s taxable income. It is also not included as income in most federal assistance programs, although the Agriculture Department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program does include the housing allowance in income tallies.

Anti-hunger advocates in Congress and beyond want to exclude housing payments not just from the basic needs allowance income calculations but also from the same tally under SNAP, an issue that will come up in 2023 when the farm bill will be reauthorized. 

Previous failure

The House’s fiscal 2023 NDAA explicitly insisted in bill language that the housing allowance be excluded from the income count, while the Senate’s silence on the issue in essence would keep the existing formula. The Pentagon’s Nov. 11 document states that the department’s leadership supports the Senate’s approach on the housing allowance.

An earlier Pentagon food assistance program begun in 2001, the Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance, was terminated in 2016 for U.S.-based troops after a blue-ribbon military compensation commission found it wasn’t reaching enough troops. According to an analysis by Leibman’s organization, it was ineffective because including the housing allowance as income cut off many military families from the program.

A Congressional Budget Office analysis last year showed the difference the housing stipend makes in how many servicemembers can get the basic needs allowance. CBO calculated that six times as many people would benefit from the basic needs allowance if the housing payments were excluded from income calculations: 3,000 servicemembers rather than 500, the CBO said, and the monthly payments would be twice as much. 

It is not clear how many more troops would be helped going forward if the housing payments were excluded or if the allowance level was set at 150 percent of the poverty line.

Regardless, judging from the numbers used in the CBO analysis, even more generous proposals will probably fall woefully short of the number of military families in need.

“While I appreciate the DoD’s acknowledgment that the Basic Needs Allowance needs to go further, we still need to do more — and that means making sure both the House and Senate amendments are in the final NDAA agreement, so we can reach as many military families struggling with food insecurity as possible,” said Jacobs.

Duckworth, Panetta and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wrote Armed Services leaders in October with the same message: Include provisions from both the House and Senate NDAAs on this issue. 

“If Congress fails to prioritize this policy solution, they will once again leave hundreds of thousands of military families without the assistance they need and deserve,” said Leibman. 

‘Inflation bonus’

The House NDAA’s inflation bonus, meanwhile, is not found in the Senate’s version. The House bill would add 2.4 percent to the likely 4.6 percent across-the-board raise coming in 2023 for military personnel. The House bill would have provided both the raise and the bonus to Defense Department civilians as well.

The White House, for its part, in a July statement of administration policy on the House bill, supported the 4.6 percent across-the-board raise for troops and civilians. But the administration document was silent on the 2.4 percent bonus for servicemembers. Its only comment was on the bonus for civilians, saying it would be inequitable to provide it to Pentagon civilians and not other federal workers. 

The White House did not mention in its statements on either the House or Senate NDAAs its position on the debates over the merits of the inflation bonus for uniformed personnel or the scope of the basic needs allowance. Apart from Austin’s endorsement in September of Congress’ fiscal 2022 mandate of the 130 percent basic needs allowance, the administration has stayed publicly quiet on these questions. 

The White House, asked about this earlier this month, declined to elaborate on its positions.

At the Pentagon, Austin said in September that ensuring servicemembers can make ends meet is “a sacred obligation” and a “national security imperative.”

Last week, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks met with military leaders last week to assess progress on the initiative. 

“To our workforce and their families,” she said, “we hear your concerns.”

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