Congress Barely Dents Scourge of Hunger in Military (Roll Call)

John M. Donnelly
January 13, 2023

This piece originally appeared in Roll Call on January 13, 2023.

A recently enacted income supplement for low-ranking U.S. troops, put in place primarily to alleviate food insecurity in the ranks, will help less than 1 percent of the estimated scores of thousands of hungry U.S. military families, according to Pentagon figures.

That statistic, which has not been previously reported, suggests Congress has a lot more work to do to ensure servicemembers who put their lives on the line for their country don’t also have to sacrifice food for themselves and their families, experts and some lawmakers said.

Fully 24 percent of active-duty servicemembers recently experienced “low food security,” meaning they sometimes lacked quality meals, according to the latest Pentagon survey of troops in late 2020 and early 2021 — before the recent inflation surge. Of those, 10 percent periodically experienced “very low food security,” meaning they sometimes ate less at mealtime, missed meals entirely or lost weight due to inadequate food intake in the previous year.

Those percentages suggest that 286,800 active-duty servicemembers have had some level of food insecurity of late, and nearly 120,000 of them have sometimes gone hungry recently due to a lack of food, according to senators on the Armed Services Committee. The figures do not count family members of those active-duty personnel. Nor are reservists and their family members included in the tally.

To address this problem, Congress established a “basic needs allowance” in the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, for lower-income servicemembers. Starting this month, the provision would boost their pay to ensure it is at least 130 percent of the poverty line for their area.

The fiscal 2023 NDAA, which was enacted late last month, will increase the percentage to 150 percent, and the law gives Defense Department leaders discretion to pay up to 200 percent in limited circumstances. The program expires after 2027.

Lawmakers have lauded the NDAA as having helped solve the problem of hunger in the ranks.

‘A drop in the bucket’

However, only about 2,400 servicemembers will be helped by the basic needs allowance that just went into effect, a Defense Department spokesman told CQ Roll Call this week.

That figure represents 0.8 percent of the estimated 286,800 active-duty servicemembers who have reported low or very low food security. Moreover, even if only the nearly 120,000 troops with very low food security are considered, 2,400 troops is still only 2 percent of that total. And even if the Pentagon’s survey results overstate the number of servicemembers with low or very low food security by a factor of 10, the basic needs allowance would still only help about 8 percent of them.

The reason so few troops will be helped has to do with the narrow way the law and the implementing regulation were written, according to military family advocates and some lawmakers.

The basic needs allowance will cost $12 million in fiscal 2023, according to the defense spending law, which was enacted last month. That amount is 0.001 percent of the $858 billion national defense budget.

Experts and lawmakers who were told of the relatively small number of troops who would benefit from the new basic needs allowance said more should be done to help those in need.

“This level of impact is a drop in the bucket in terms of what needs to happen to reduce food insecurity among military families,” said Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, which reported on the issue last year.

Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, is one of a bloc of lawmakers from both parties in both chambers looking to ensure the basic needs allowance and other forms of support reach more military families who need it.

“This crisis isn’t only a stain on our country’s conscience, but also harms our military readiness, recruitment, and morale,” Jacobs told CQ Roll Call in a statement.

Housing allowance issue

Servicemembers must apply for the basic needs allowance, though the services must notify those who are eligible.

Experts say the biggest problem with the allowance, as currently written in law and Pentagon regulations, pertains to how a servicemember’s income is calculated — specifically, the fact that their “basic allowance for housing” is by default included in the income tally for purposes of determining eligibility for the basic needs allowance.

Troops who live off base get these housing payments, typically totaling thousands of dollars annually, to cover most of the cost of their residences, while those who live on base do not get the payments.

Critics have long argued that the housing allowance should be left out of the income count under the basic needs allowance program as well as for the Agriculture Department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, because including housing payments inflates the income totals of potential uniformed beneficiaries so much that most do not qualify for aid.

The fiscal 2022 NDAA 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.

The program’s limitations “will significantly reduce” its impact, said Jennifer Goodale, director of military family and survivor policy at the Military Officers Association of America, in an email.

Eileen Huck, senior deputy director of government relations at the National Military Family Association, agreed.

“We know that too many military families are struggling to put food on the table,” Huck said via email. “It’s frustrating that the basic needs allowance remains out of reach for the families who are sacrificing to protect our country.”

Josh Protas, vice president of public policy at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, also believes the housing payments should be excluded from the income tally.

Military housing payments are not counted toward taxable income by the IRS and for most other federal programs, he said. And by counting them 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, he said.

The House Armed Services Committee’s last two versions of the NDAA would have excluded housing payments from income calculations under the basic needs allowance program. But the Senate has not agreed, and the final bills dropped that provision.

Some Senate Armed Services Committee members have argued in favor of the House approach and will do so again this year.

“I will push for additional reforms such as removing the housing allowance from basic income calculations, so food is adequately covered,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement.

A study for Congress released this month by the Rand Corp. found that 21 times as many people would benefit from the basic needs allowance if servicemembers’ housing payments were omitted from the income calculations.

That would mean that 50,400 troops, instead of 2,400, would benefit — a big difference, but still only a fraction of those who experience low or very low food insecurity.

In addition to excluding the housing payments from the income totals, several experts argued that the basic needs allowance should ensure that every servicemember makes at least 200 percent of the poverty level of income.

Military-unique hardships

Expanding the number of those who can get the allowance and upping the amount they receive may be necessary, but some say it remains unclear if that alone will solve the problem.

Military personnel, even at lower echelons, typically earn more money than civilians with comparable characteristics such as age, educational background and the like, the Rand study showed.

Even so, troops experience food insecurity at almost triple the rates of civilians with comparable age and education.

But most experts seem to agree that comparing individual earning levels is not as useful as comparing household incomes.

That matters, they say, because military spouses are seven times as likely to be unemployed as their civilian counterparts, according to a Blue Star Families survey in 2020.

Other factors, both acute and chronic, may make it harder for military families to make ends meet than their civilian counterparts, and these need to be part of a broader solution set, experts say. Many of these pressures on family budgets arise due to servicemembers’ frequent changes of station, which make it harder for spouses to get and keep jobs, force families to incur moving expenses that are not always fully reimbursed and make securing child care a challenge.

What’s more, special and incentive payments such as those provided during deployments may abruptly end for servicemembers, hurting their bank balances. Lastly, adjustments to pay and housing allowances depending on location may not meet needs fully or may take time to be realized, analysts have noted.

Congress and the Pentagon have taken steps to address many of these issues. The across-the-board military and civilian pay increase of 4.6 percent this year will be the largest bump in 20 years. Yet inflation, if it continues to remain above 4.6 percent, may still devour the raise. In any event, the pay hike helps higher-income personnel more than lower paid ones.

Policymakers have also changed laws and policies to improve troops’ finances, such as dropping commissary prices and allowing select boosting of housing allowances.

On the other hand, Congress chose not to include in its final fiscal 2023 defense authorization and appropriations laws a provision that would have provided a one-time “inflation bonus” of 2.4 percent — above the 4.6 percent base pay increase — for Defense Department employees making $45,000 a year or less.

That provision would have aided 783,000 servicemembers and 37,000 civilians with an average of $823 apiece — though, again, higher-income personnel would have disproportionately benefited.

The House had included that bonus in its fiscal 2023 defense bills last year, but the final versions deleted the provision.

Servicemembers also get a subsistence allowance for food, but it is not meant to cover dependents.

Regardless of all these steps taken or not taken, the survey data on food insecurity suggests much more needs to be done.

Overcorrect or undercorrect?

Still, there remains the possibility that a lack of money is less of a cause of hunger than some may assume. The Rand Corp. study found that more research is needed to see the extent to which income shortfalls are driving food insecurity, as opposed to, say, financial management problems.

Rand is launching a new study to gather more nuanced data from military families.

“We were not able to get enough information to understand the underlying causes” of food insecurity, said Beth Asch, a senior economist at Rand who led the study, in an interview. “It could be related to income. We just don’t know.”

Military family and anti-hunger advocates say more research is fine, but not in lieu of access to needed assistance for lower-ranking servicemembers.

“Maybe it’s about time we overresponded,” said Protas. “It’s better to overcorrect than to have hundreds of thousands of military families struggling with hunger, living in the shadows.”

Increasing the cost of the basic needs allowance above 0.001 percent of the defense budget is worth it, he said, and should be compared to the costs of insufficient action, which he said include adverse effects on military readiness, recruitment, retention and even suicide rates.

“To those who oppose expanding the basic needs allowance while we study the problem more, I would ask: How many food-insecure military families are acceptable?” he said.