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Renewed push is on to help hungry military families

With thousands of servicemembers still experiencing food insecurity, lawmakers are poised to introduce legislative fixes

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., grew up in a military family that used food stamps at times, and she and others are working to reduce food insecurity among military families.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., grew up in a military family that used food stamps at times, and she and others are working to reduce food insecurity among military families. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers from both parties and in both chambers say they are mounting a new push this year to revise laws that are keeping perhaps tens of thousands of hungry military families from receiving federal assistance.

Based on the latest Defense Department survey of U.S. troops, some 286,800 in the active-duty force — or nearly one in four military servicemembers — experience “low food security.” Of those, an estimated 120,000 are faced with “very low food security,” meaning they periodically eat less, miss meals or lose weight, the survey indicated. The figures do not count the spouses or children of those troops, nor do the numbers include reservists and their families.

Despite the apparently widespread extent of the problem, only a tiny portion of needy servicemembers are being reached by federal assistance programs that are meant for lower-income citizens, according to recent analyses by both CQ Roll Call and research groups. That is because of the way two programs — one in the Defense Department and the other in the Agriculture Department — are constructed, some lawmakers say.

Specifically, in determining a service member’s eligibility for either program, his or her so-called basic allowance for housing counts as income — unlike in many other federal aid initiatives. That arcane rule is excluding most of those who need help from getting it, anti-hunger advocates and numerous lawmakers say.

On Thursday in the Senate, Democrat Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska will introduce a bill to change one of these programs: the Agriculture Department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — formerly known as food stamps. 

Their legislation, which is expected to become part of this year’s farm bill debate, would remove the requirement that a service member’s housing allowance be counted toward income under the SNAP program. An effort by anti-hunger advocates to make the change on the 2018 Farm Bill (PL 115-334) fell short.

Duckworth has personal experience with military families in need, as she grew up in one. Her family relied on food stamps for a while when she was growing up. She later became an Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot, lost both her legs in combat and earned a Purple Heart. 

“From the time I was a young cadet and a young lieutenant, outside every military base there were the tattoo parlors and the pawn shops, and now there are the food pantries,” Duckworth said in an interview.

‘Disheartening and distressing’

Duckworth and Murkowski are already backed by at least a dozen senators from both parties, including some who serve on the Armed Services Committee and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. 

Duckworth is making the case for the SNAP changes in conversations with Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee members who will play a key role in writing the next farm bill. Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is “very supportive” of the proposed SNAP eligibility changes, Duckworth said.

Duckworth said she is also reaching out to John Boozman, R-Ark., the Agriculture Committee’s ranking member.

Murkowski, in a statement to CQ Roll Call, cast the legislation as fundamentally about strengthening national defense. 

“Our military members and their families have enough to focus on as they serve and defend our nation — they shouldn’t have the additional anxiety about how they’re going to put food on the table,” Murkowski said. 

In the House, meanwhile, Democrat Jimmy Panetta of California and Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state introduced similar legislation last September to revise SNAP rules for service personnel. Panetta, a member of the Armed Services Committee, plans to re-up the measure in the coming weeks. 

“The fact that there are some members of our military who suffer from food insecurity while serving to keep our nation secure is disheartening and distressing,” Panetta told CQ Roll Call in a statement. “What’s worse is that there are some unintended barriers in place that make accessing supplemental nutrition assistance programs difficult for those same service members.”

Pentagon income supplement’s low impact

At the same time, many of these same lawmakers, among others, intend to push for excluding the housing allowance from income calculations under the Defense Department’s so-called basic needs allowance program. 

That initiative, which is being implemented this year for the first time, seeks to ensure that no servicemember’s income falls below 150 percent of the poverty level. 

However, CQ Roll Call disclosed last month that only 0.8 percent of the estimated 286,800 active-duty service members who face low food security would get the benefit, according to Pentagon figures. Anti-hunger advocates say the program is not reaching anywhere near the number of families who need it because of the way housing allowances count toward income, with limited exceptions.

The fiscal 2022 NDAA, which created the basic needs allowance, gives service secretaries latitude to leave the housing payments out of the income count in areas where costs of living are especially high. But advocates with military family groups say the Pentagon has narrowly applied the law so that these waivers will rarely happen.

Uneven treatment of housing allowance

Two decades ago, a program to aid food-insecure military families called the Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance reached only a fraction of those in need due to the requirement that housing allowances be included in income calculations — and that failure is being repeated, critics argue.

The housing allowances go to troops who live off base and can amount to thousands of dollars per year. 

Military housing payments are not counted toward taxable income by the IRS and for many other federal programs. 

Duckworth said her bill would just make the treatment of the housing allowance consistent across federal programs.

The varied ways income for service members is reckoned among federal programs confuses many military personnel, critics argue. 

Moreover, by counting housing allowances as income for those who live off base but not counting the value of on-base housing for troops who live there, programs such as the basic needs allowance create a disparity in who can benefit, they argue. 

Duckworth said that if the SNAP program is changed so it gives more needy military families access, that is likely to obviate the need for a Defense Department basic needs allowance entirely. 

“This would be a very elegant solution,” she said. 

SNAP’s doors shut 

The SNAP program, like the basic needs allowance, is not reaching most of the military families who need it, studies show. 

Only 14 percent of military personnel who experience food insecurity receive public or private assistance to feed themselves and their families, RAND Corp. said in a study last month. Of those people, only 1.8 percent got benefits from SNAP.

Anti-hunger advocates blame the Pentagon for minimizing the problem over the years, though they say that has begun to change under the leadership of Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III. The advocates also blame the Senate Armed Services Committee, whose leaders have for two years running rejected, in final talks on the NDAA, proposals to exclude housing payments from income calculations under the basic needs allowance. 

Looking forward, the advocates worry that, as the new House GOP majority focuses on reining in discretionary spending starting in fiscal 2024, more aid for hungry military families could be a casualty.

Duckworth said excluding the housing allowance from SNAP income calculations would add just .07 percent to the program’s annual budget.

The $12 million annual cost in fiscal 2023 of the Pentagon’s basic needs allowance, as now written, is .001 percent of the $858 billion national defense budget.

‘Platitudes’

Influential military family groups are behind the proposed changes in how incomes are determined for service members under SNAP and the basic needs allowance.

Eileen Huck, senior deputy director of government relations at the National Military Family Association, said the new Duckworth-Murkowski bill on SNAP “will ensure that more military families are able to put healthy food on the table.”

Other organizations supporting the Duckworth-Murkowski bill on SNAP include the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Military Officers Association of America, VoteVets, Alliance to End Hunger, MomsRising, Bread for the World, Share Our Strength and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, aides said. 

The co-sponsors of the Duckworth-Murkowski bill currently include four Armed Services members: Duckworth, Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Angus King, I-Maine, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. 

Also co-sponsoring the measure are at least four members of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee: Murkowski, Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., who is the subcommittee’s chairman.

After the fiscal 2023 NDAA and the fiscal 2023 omnibus appropriations bill were enacted last year, with the basic needs allowance and a 4.6 percent military pay raise included, lawmakers in both parties lauded their own efforts. But the Pentagon’s allowance is reaching few in need, inflation devoured a large share of the pay raise, and the raise disproportionately benefited military officers anyway.

Josh Protas, vice president of public policy at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, has grown frustrated with what he considers congressional stinginess when it comes to helping troops in need.

“Don’t say platitudes about how much you support our troops while you turn around and undermine support  for low-income military families that are struggling with basic needs,” Protas said. “You can’t do both.”

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