Some lawmakers want to rethink military benefits as service member families go hungry

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The issue of hunger in the military, and service member families needing food stamps to get by, is starting to grab the attention of high-profile lawmakers.

After another report from MAZON, an organization focused on fighting hunger, detailing how military families are slipping through the cracks of the United States’ safety net, members of Congress in both houses are calling for action.

Reps. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.) and Don Young (R-Alaska) introduced legislation earlier this month to help low-income military families make ends meet. The legislation creates a basic needs allowance to support troops who are not eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

“Currently, there are federal regulations that unintentionally cause military families to lose out on SNAP benefits,” Panetta said in a statement. “Our bipartisan Military Hunger Prevention Act would make up for that loss by providing certain military households with a basic needs allowance to purchase groceries. Although it’s unfortunate that some military families have to resort to SNAP, it’s our responsibility to ensure that those families, at the least, have access to the necessary support they need to lead healthy, food secure lives.”

The problem at hand is that many low-income service members lose out on SNAP benefits because of the basic allowance for housing all troops receive. That allowance helps service members pay for rent or a mortgage.

“The Agriculture Department counts this housing allowance toward your income, despite the fact that the IRS does not treat it as income and other federal subsidy programs do not treat it as income,” Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON told Federal News Network. “We see this as a glitch. What it does is misrepresent service members’ income so they cannot qualify for SNAP despite the fact that that money is actually ongoing for housing costs and cannot be spent on food.”

MAZON’s latest report gives a handful of suggestions to the Defense Department on how to address the issue, including creating a basic needs allowance.

The report says the Biden administration should take steps to ensure basic allowance for housing is not counted as income for SNAP, that federal agencies share data on hunger, and that Congress should reexamine military pay scales because service member needs have changed.

“We’re talking about enlisted personnel at the lower ranks,” Leibman said. “The military is far more diverse in terms of race and gender than it ever was. These are people who returned to the military after losing their jobs. After the Great Recession in 2008 there was a surge in numbers of people who [were] working in the military. We see that there’s a diversity in those enlisted personnel including diversity of families, and that the salary schedules we’re seeing now were never anticipated, and most of the lower ranks are making $24,000 or $26,000 a year for a family of four. That’s the definition of poverty in this country.”

Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) are also jumping on the issue. Last month, they sent a letter to the Pentagon urging DoD to appoint someone to tackle issues of food insecurity. They also asked for a report to Congress on military hunger.

DoD’s record keeping on hunger has been spotty. Finding statistics has largely fallen on advocacy groups like Blue Star Families and MAZON.

A 2019 survey conducted by the Military Family Advisory Network found one in eight military families reported food insecurity. Pentagon records show one-third of military children in DoD-run schools are eligible for free or reduced lunches. A Blue Star Families survey from July 2020 found 5% of respondents couldn’t afford a week’s worth of food.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this crisis for military families. Military spouses already struggled with high levels of unemployment, at 24%, prior to the pandemic,” Warner and Duckworth wrote. “Despite these challenges, we still require our service members and their families to maintain mission readiness, to conduct Permanent Change of Station moves, to train, to deploy, and to execute their duties without fail. They are obligated to honor the commitments they have made by choosing to serve and protect our freedoms. We too have an obligation — to make sure that our military families have what they need to not just survive, but thrive.”

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