Military spending bill could help ease hunger among service members

As the Senate debates the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the U.S. military, anti-hunger advocates say the bill would take an important first step toward addressing the long-standing problem of food insecurity among service members. The bill would boost the pay of the lowest-earning members of the military, giving them a so-called basic needs allowance to help cover the cost of food and other necessities.

While neither the Pentagon nor other federal agencies keep official data on the issue, reports by advocacy groups and military family organizations suggest that a significant number of military families struggle to afford food. A 2020 survey of more than 10,000 service members, across all branches, found that 14 percent of respondents had been food insecure within the past year. The problem was more common among the lower ranks of the enlisted, with 29 percent reporting food insecurity. A 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office found that half of students from military families at schools on military bases were eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch. A Pentagon report on the issue was due in spring of 2020, but it has still not been released.

One of the factors in the military’s food-insecurity problem is low pay, which starts at around $21,000 for all branches. Even when housing allowances and other bonuses are taken into account, junior-ranking service members with families are often barely scraping by. “The Department of Defense doesn’t like to acknowledge that among those who serve our country are working poor families, because we don’t pay them enough,” said Josh Protas, vice president of public policy at the advocacy group MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

Under the new bill, service members earning below 130 percent of the federal poverty line would be eligible for the basic needs allowance that would bring their income to 130 percent of the poverty line.

But it’s not yet clear how much of a boost service members would get — the version of the bill passed by the House would give about 10,000 families $400 per month, on average, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But the Senate version is much less generous; unlike the House version, it would count service members’ housing allowance as income when determining whether or not they’re eligible for the pay boost.

Speaking Tuesday at a webinar organized by MAZON, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and a former lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, said passing the defense authorization bill with the basic needs provision intact was one of the most important things Congress could do to address the issue of hunger in the military. “The House version is much better than the Senate version,” she said. “But they both have money in them, so this is a good first step.”

Duckworth was one of 13 Democratic senators who signed a letter calling on Congress to send President Biden a version of the defense spending bill that includes the House version of the basic needs provision, CQ Roll Call reported.

Another crucial step toward addressing the problem of hunger among service members, Duckworth said, is changing the SNAP eligibility rules so that military housing allowances don’t count as income. The IRS and many federal programs do not consider this housing allowance as income. Protas said the USDA has the authority to change the rule through administrative action, and MAZON has submitted a legal memo to the agency urging it to do so. “We’ve argued this with three successive administrations,” he said, “but none have yet taken action.”

If the Biden administration doesn’t act, advocates will push for the change during the next farm bill reauthorization process, which should begin sometime in 2022.

Anti-hunger groups have been trying to get the Pentagon to address the issue of food insecurity among service members for years, without much success. “The DoD did not want to admit this is a problem,” Duckworth said.

But there are signs that this is starting to change. In November, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a 90-day review of economic security among members of the military. The result is due in mid-January.

This acknowledgement, Duckworth said, signaled a “sea change” in the attitude of military leadership, which has often dismissed the issue as a question of low-ranking service members improperly managing their money.

“Admitting there’s a problem is a good first step,” Duckworth said. Military pay scales have failed to keep up with changing demographics in the armed forces, she said. In the past, the more junior service members were likely to be single. But now, more and more of the junior ranks are married with kids. And many military families depend on a single income, since frequent moves and difficulties accessing affordable childcare means military spouses are often un- or under-employed.

Abby Leibman, MAZON’s president, noted that there are food pantries located on or near every military base in the country. But the problem of hunger in the armed forces is so widespread that the charitable sector simply cannot address it, she said. “This is the responsibility of the federal government, and they need to embrace it.”