Meager pay, poor nutrition for many military families: National embarrassment for U.S.? (Frontiersman)

Tim Bradner
November 17, 2023

This article was originally published on Frontiersman on November 17, 2023.


This should be a national embarrassment for the U.S.

Across the nation, and particularly in high-cost Alaska, the meagre pay for soldiers in the enlisted ranks often isn’t enough to put food on the table if there’s a family.

Adding insult to injury, military families are denied access to the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, which helps other low-income Americans.

Finally, a new Basic Needs Allowance for military families approved by Congress intended to ease the program has been jury-rigged to dilute its benefit.

The problems are especially acute in Fairbanks for military personnel at Fort Wainwright because of the way the Base Housing Allowance is calculated for Interior Alaska, which cuts even further into the food budgets for families.

“This is an embarrassment. We ask so much of these people (military families) and we pay them so little. And then we deny them the SNAP benefit,” said Josh Protas, vice president for policy at MAZON, a national group long active in low-income food assistance.

Protas spoke at a panel on hunger at the Alaska Food and Farm Festival held in Anchorage Nov. 10 and 11. The Alaska Farm Bureau based in Palmer, and the Alaska Food Policy Council organized the event.

Alaska’s congressional delegation is active in trying to solve these problems. Both senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Congresswoman Mary Peltola in the U.S. House, are sponsoring legislation to cut through bureaucratic obstacles.

But despite their clout – Murkowski being senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee; Sulliavan being on the Senate Armed Services Committee and Peltola, as a Democrat, with a pipeline to the Biden administration – nothing has happened yet.

The headwinds are surprising, and although it won’t be admitted this appears to be with the complicity of the U.S. Department of Defense, but the defense department’s own studies show that 24 percent of active duty military personnel were “food insecure” at some point in the last 12 months.

“They (defense officials) just don’t like the optics of having military families hungry. They would rather just sweep this under the rug,” Protas said in an interview.

Part of the problem is that senior defense officials and members of Congress have an outdated picture of a soldier in the junior enlisted ranks. “They think of an 18-year-old single male,” Protas said.

But this is obsolete. “The junior enlisted members are more diverse in race, gender and ethnicity,” in the modern armed services, and as compared with higher ranks, he said. They are also supporting families at much higher rates than previously, but “the Pentagon has not adequately adjusted the base salary to reflect these modern realities.”

Others are not shy about Abby Liebman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a food advocacy group, is not shy about critcizing senior officials for not addressing such as basic issue as food security for troops.

“When MAZON began to raise this issue with military leadership, policymakers, and other advocates, we were met with an avalanche of criticism that was unrivaled by any of our other advocacy efforts. As we proposed solutions we were turned away by those in authority, who either disclaimed responsibility or raised specious arguments,” she said in a statement.

Alaska’s late Congressman Don Young of Alaska agreed with this. In 2019, he said: “The Department of Defense’s response to military hunger has been to put it politely, lacking. Their description of this problem as minimal and their suggestion that these members take financial literacy training is not only insulting and condescending, it also does nothing to
help the problem.

“If anything, their response helps to exacerbate this problem by keeping the barriers of shame and stigma to assistance intact. Our nation’s servicemembers are willing to fight and die for our country and we should be providing them with the funds and resources necessary to ensure that they can feed their families,” Young said.

MAZON worked on a solution, which became the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance that was adopted. But even this was diluted when a military family’s Base Housing Allowance was counted as income in calculating the basic needs allowance, effectively reducing it.

The same dynamic has played out in the eligibility for food assistance under SNAP (formerly food stamps), where the base housing allowance is counted as income in determining family eligibility, the result being many military families being disqualified for food assistance.

Solving both of these problems should be simple, but nothing in Washington, D.C. is easy. The SNAP food assistance program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture but the agency hasn’t taken steps to address this.

It can be solved in the next reauthorization of the federal Farm Bill, which guides administration of federal programs for agriculture. The reauthorization is done every five year and work is mainly done by the agriculture committees in both the Senate and House.

No member of the Alaska delegation is on these committees but Alaska’s senators Murkowski and Sullivan have introduced a “marker bill,” a separate piece of legislation to make the needed changes that is often rolled into with the big farm as it progresses.

Alaska Rep. Mary Peltola in sponsoring a similar marker bill in the U.S. House. Given the Alaska delegation’s clout there is a good chance the change will make it into the farm bill, but nothing is certain.

The other initiative MAZON and other food security groups are pursuing is to change language in the basic needs allowance so that the housing allowance is not counted as income. This was done in the House version, but not the Senate version, of the latest National Defense Authorization Act. To be effective it must be in both House and Senate version when passed and signed by the President.

“MAZON is advocating for the Basic Allowance for Housing to be excluded as counted income for purposes of the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance, or BNA. Other family safety net programs fall under other jurisdictions and legislative vehicles, such as the Farm Bill for SNAP,” Protas said. But the basic needs allowance falls to the defense department and the Armed Services committees of the U.S. Senate and Houses.

Surprisingly, opposition in the Senate came largely from the staff of the Armed Services Committee, and Protas thinks Defense Department officials pressed the committee staff to oppose the provision in the Senate bill.

“It seems that the Senate Armed Services Committee staff do not believe that there is a widespread issue despite the DoD’s own estimates, and they feel that the housing allowance should continue to be counted as income for purposes of the Basic Needs Allowance. The Senate version did contain a small change in the language for the Basic Needs Allowance statute, but we are concerned this will not significantly change the effectiveness and reach of the statute,” Protas said.

Lacking access to federal nutrition assistance programs, many military families turn to local food banks, which are located near almost every military installation in the nation, including Alaska. At Camp Pendleton, the large California marine base, four food pantries serve the local military community.

There was a forerunner of the basic needs allowance in the late Sen. John McCain’s work in 2000 to create the Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance, or FSSA, which McCain intended to help increase military families’ ability to meet basic needs.

Unfortunately, McCain’s effort was doomed from the start, according to an analysis by MAZON. Like now, the FSSA included the base housing allowance as income used in a calculation of eligibility, largely negating its benefit.

“Furthermore, to apply a service member had to go through the base chain of command, which deterred them from seeking the support they needed for fear of telling a commander that their family was struggling financially,” MAZON wrote in a report.

“Such an admission could not only result in negative treatment and performance reviews. It could jeopardize security clearance and damage career prospects as such members were viewed as somehow vulnerable. This exacerbated the shame and stigma that often exists around seeking assistance from federal safety net programs.

Congress and the Obama administration allowed the program to “sunset,” or terminate, in 2016. Nothing was done for five years, through the Obama, Trump and Biden administration, but MAZON, in 2016, was able to get Congress to authorize a Governmental Accountability Office report on military families’ reliance on food assistance.

The resulting GOA report documented the need and urged the Defense Department to coordinate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the SNAP food benefits. But five years after publication of the GAO report nothing has been done.

There was some progress in 2019 when the new Military Family Basic Needs Allowance was established, at MAZON’s urging, and incorporate into two successive NDAA authorizations. Importantly, it provided for automatic notification of eligibility for families and automatic receipt of the allowance, unless the service member opts out.

This removed the stigma of having to go through the base chain of command. But the problem of including the base housing allowance as income remains.

Key findings in MAZON’s reports include:

• At least part of the problem stems from an unintended barrier to assistance for struggling military families — counting a servicemember’s housing allowance as revenue in determining eligibility for federal nutrition programs like SNAP (formerly food stamps).

• Junior-enlisted members are more diverse in race, ethnicity, and gender than higher military ranks. They are also supporting families at much higher rates than previous cohorts of servicemembers. The Pentagon has not adequately adjusted the base salary to reflect the reality of our modern military force.

• The circumstances that give rise to food insecurity among military families are complex. MAZON said simplistic responses based on stereotypes are often lifted up ahead of more meaningful responses.

• In 2020 and 2021 COVID-19 exacerbated the unique financial challenges of military families such as high rates of spousal unemployment, access to affordable childcare, and frequent relocation.