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Lawmakers pressed to improve solutions for military hunger

Advocates worry defense policy bill won't do enough to get aid to servicemembers who need it

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who chairs a newly formed panel on quality of life among members of the military, supports using the basic needs allowance to address hunger among the troops.
Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who chairs a newly formed panel on quality of life among members of the military, supports using the basic needs allowance to address hunger among the troops. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers writing this year’s defense authorization bill will soon decide once again how best to help military families plagued by food insecurity, as legislative efforts to date have failed to help more than 99 percent of those in need, official figures show.

Nearly 1 in 4 active-duty servicemembers — or about 286,800 people, not counting their family members — suffer food insecurity, according to the most recent Pentagon survey of the force. Of those, about 120,000 deal with “extreme food insecurity,” the department found.  

But Congress’ purported solution to the problem, a so-called basic needs allowance, or BNA, is helping only about 2,400 troops — or just 0.8 percent of the 286,800 reportedly in need, CQ Roll Call disclosed in January, citing figures provided by the Defense Department. 

The question Congress has grappled with is how best to determine which servicemembers should be eligible for the income supplement. 

The basic needs allowance, as currently crafted, requires that troops’ housing allowances must count toward their income. Such payments go to servicemembers who live off base and sometimes amount to thousands of dollars.

Getting rid of that requirement would result in 21 times as many military families receiving aid, Rand Corp. said in a study earlier this year. 

To achieve that, the House’s fiscal 2024 NDAA would for the second straight year drop the requirement to include housing payments as income under the program — something anti-hunger advocates and military family supporters have long called for.

But the Senate’s NDAA, for the second straight year, does not follow suit. And the Senate’s approach has become law so far. 

This year’s Senate NDAA includes an incremental and, critics say, insufficient tweak to the program. The Senate’s NDAA would give the service secretaries more latitude to exclude housing payments from income calculations in cases the secretaries believe it is warranted.

A spokesman for Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: “No servicemember or their family should ever go hungry. Sen. Reed has helped widen eligibility for food assistance for members of the military and civilians alike. That is reflected in the NDAA and Defense Appropriations bills, and should be in the Farm bill as well.”

However, anti-hunger advocates, military family groups and a chorus of lawmakers from both parties said via email this week that they support the House’s more sweeping and direct approach, not the Senate’s.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a former Air Force officer who chairs the House Armed Services Military Quality of Life Panel, was an early advocate of the basic needs allowance and a supporter of ensuring the program’s eligibility rules include as many servicemembers as need help.

“The Senate has historically taken a different view on this issue, but we believe the growing weight of evidence of military families in crisis will eventually carry the day,” Bacon said. 

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., also an Air Force veteran and ranking member of the Quality of Life Panel, said she will also work diligently to advocate for the House position on the program during the NDAA conference.  

“Hunger among our troops and their families is unacceptable, and it is a reality our nation needs to face,” Houlahan said. “My colleagues and I have heard from too many in uniform whose cost of living is outpacing their paycheck, and the small number of families currently being helped by the BNA program compared to the need speaks for itself.”

New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she supports the House’s approach on this issue.

“I support the inclusion of the House language in the conferenced NDAA, which would expand BNA eligibility and strengthen the health and well-being of our armed forces,” Gillibrand said.

Diverging approaches

The basic needs allowance was created by the fiscal 2022 NDAA to ensure no servicemember’s salary falls below 130 percent of the poverty line. Since then, Congress has upped the target to 150 percent of the poverty line and has allowed service secretaries to go as high as 200 percent in some cases.

However, few food-insecure troops have benefited from the initiative, Pentagon figures indicate.

The reason, experts agree, is that counting housing allowances toward income has inflated troops’ income figures and consequently narrowed the number of eligible beneficiaries.

During the Senate Armed Services Committee’s mostly closed door NDAA debate in June, the panel opted to write into the bill a tweak to the program’s rules. 

Current law permits the armed services’ secretaries to remove the housing allowances from eligibility determinations for a servicemember who lives somewhere with a “high cost of living.” The Senate’s new bill would also allow the secretary to issue such a waiver for a person in uniform who “otherwise has a demonstrated need.” 

Critics say that change is probably not enough to make a difference in program outcomes.

First, it is unclear, they say, how many servicemembers have benefited from these waivers to date. 

The Pentagon’s figures suggest it is not many, given that only 0.8 percent of food-insecure members are getting the aid.

While the Senate’s proposed tweak might or might not help, these observers say, a more direct approach is needed. 

“The NDAA is one of our biggest opportunities every year to put our money where our mouth is and show our values when it comes to our servicemembers and our national security,” said Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee and its Quality of Life Panel. “In San Diego alone, 45,000 servicemembers, veterans, and military families visit the San Diego Food Bank every month. Ensuring that the housing allowance doesn’t factor into eligibility for the BNA will ensure more military families can put food on the table.”

Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., who is also a member of the Armed Services Committee and its Quality of Life Panel, agreed.

“Servicemembers who dedicate their lives to defending our country should not go hungry,” Strickland said. “Including housing payments in income calculations for the BNA forces servicemembers to choose between putting a roof over their heads or food on the table.”

Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., who has regularly pushed for a more expansive basic needs allowance program, said junior enlisted personnel are most at risk from hunger. 

“It’s distressing to imagine that some who serve in our nation’s military are forced to rely on food assistance programs to help feed their families,” Panetta said. “However, it’s absolutely shocking to learn that there are low-income military families who are unable to access that type of support simply due to a bureaucratic calculation.”

Critics press their case

Outside groups are also pressuring NDAA conferees to take a more effective approach than they have so far to the assistance program for food-insecure military families.

“By failing to remove bureaucratic barriers for those who serve our country yet suffer the indignity of hunger, the Senate once again missed an opportunity to create meaningful change,” said Abby J. Leibman, CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, in a July 27 press statement. 

Josh Protas, MAZON’s vice president of public policy, said the Senate’s proposed alteration is not directive enough.

“The Senate provision does not go far enough and leaves too much to interpretation to the Department of Defense that risks military families continuing to fall through the cracks, struggling with food insecurity without access to the assistance they need and deserve,” Protas said.

The National Military Family Association “strongly supports” the House NDAA’s approach to the basic needs allowance, said Eileen Huck, the group’s senior deputy director of government relations. 

“The Basic Needs Allowance is an important tool to help struggling military families, but as currently implemented too few families are able to benefit from it,” Huck said.  

SNAP 

Many of the members who want to expand the Pentagon’s basic needs allowance program by changing the eligibility requirements want to do the same to the Agriculture Department’s similar rules for determining servicemembers’ eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The SNAP rules also mandate that servicemembers’ housing payments count as income.

By comparison, military housing payments are not counted toward taxable income by the IRS and for most other federal programs, experts said. 

Moreover, because the military’s housing allowances predominantly go to defray expenses for troops who live off base in privately run housing, not to servicemembers who live on base, the basic needs allowance creates a disparity among servicemembers by inflating the income calculation of those who live off base, some critics say. 

The SNAP eligibility rules will be part of the debate over this year’s farm bill. 

MAZON’s Protas said it is not enough to just change the rules in either the Pentagon program or SNAP. Both must be fixed, he argued. 

“Because of such negative public perceptions of SNAP that have been exacerbated in recent years by politicians who irresponsibly spout off harmful stereotypes and misinformation in their attempts to make cuts to the [SNAP] program, there continues to be heightened stigma and reluctance to apply for SNAP among military families, veterans, and others, even when they badly need the help and should be eligible,” he said. “The Basic Needs Allowance can continue to serve an important role to assist military families that chose not to apply for SNAP because of such stigma.”

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