Defense bill’s assistance for poor troops falls short, advocates say (Roll Call)

John M. Donnelly
December 7, 2021

This article first appeared in Roll Call on December 7, 2021.

The final National Defense Authorization Act would create a landmark “basic needs allowance” for low-income military personnel, but it is not generous enough to help the estimated scores of thousands of hungry military families, advocates for them say.

According to Feeding America, an anti-hunger group, as many as 160,000 active-duty enlisted servicemembers have trouble feeding their families. Other estimates are similar.

Abby J. Leibman, president & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, said the final NDAA is written in a way that will exclude many of the needy.

“Hunger, in a country as bountiful as ours, is an indignity no person should have to face — least of all military families who already sacrifice so much,” Leibman said.

Income calculations

The final defense authorization bill, made public Tuesday, would authorize the Pentagon to ensure that all troops with dependents have incomes that total at least 130 percent of the poverty line. Any servicemember with dependents who falls below that level can apply for the allowance, and troops will be regularly screened for eligibility and then notified, the bill says.

A version of this provision was in both the House-passed and the Senate Armed Services Committee’s NDAA bills.

The final measure would largely mirror the Senate’s version in being less generous than many anti-hunger advocates had wanted.

The debate largely turns on an arcane but important question: whether a servicemember’s so-called basic allowance for housing must be included in the income calculation or not. The housing allowance, which can amount to thousands of dollars annually, is aimed at covering most of the rental costs for servicemembers who reside off base.

The House bill had mandated that the housing payments not be included in the income tally. That made it more likely that hundreds more military families would qualify for the new basic needs allowance.

The Senate bill was silent on the housing allowance question — in effect leaving it up to the Pentagon. (The White House has said it is undecided on this issue.)

The final NDAA bill, by comparison, says that the secretary of a military branch may exclude some undefined portion of the housing allowance in calculating income for servicemembers who reside where the secretary believes the cost of living is high.

That provision’s effect is not clear, but it is anathema to many anti-hunger advocates.

“The well-being of military families should not be an open-ended question subject to the whims or interpretations of whomever happens to be seated at the head of the Pentagon, and the federal government must not penalize those who do not happen to live in ‘high cost of living’ areas,” said Leibman. “Particularly in the wake of COVID-19, families in every Zip code and near every military base in America are facing hardship, and we know that military families often face unique financial challenges related to frequent relocation, high spousal unemployment rates, and lack of affordable childcare.”

Anti-hunger advocates also say that provisions requiring servicemembers to apply for the basic needs allowance are onerous and could keep many from accessing the aid, especially since some are ashamed of seeking food assistance or fear that seeking it could hurt their careers.

The final NDAA “fails to support many junior military families who are struggling and places the bureaucratic process to request help on military families who wish to avoid the stigma of food insecurity that can affect promotion boards,” said Mark Belinsky, director of Currently Serving and Retired Affairs at the Military Officers Association of America, an influential group representing military families.

Major issue, minor cost

If the Pentagon were to include the housing funds in every income calculation, the aid would help just 500 families with $200 a month — a mere $1 million commitment to fighting hunger in the military in the context of a $768 billion defense bill, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.

By sharp contrast, if the House approach had been taken instead, six times as many families (3,000) would have each gotten twice as much per month ($400) on average, for about $14 million annual cost — still a tiny fraction of the defense budget.

The final bill may allow for an outcome that is somewhere between those two scenarios. But it is far from what advocates had sought.

In any event, no iteration of this year’s NDAA would have gotten close to helping all of the thousands of military families that are struggling to get by, according to multiple surveys in the last few years.