Defense officials should scrap an allowance for troops in the U.S. designed to keep lower-income military families off the government's food stamp program — because food stamps may be a more effective way to help them, according to the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.
In many cases, DoD's Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance program provides fewer benefits than the broad Agriculture Department's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program, the commission said in its final report released Thursday.
DoD's FSSA is available to troops stationed in the U.S. and overseas, and the allowance should be maintained overseas where SNAP is unavailable, the commission recommended.
Service members can receive up to $1,100 a month in FSSA benefits, depending on their income and family size. There are no restrictions on what can be purchased with the money; SNAP benefits, in contrast, can be used to purchase only specific nutritional food items.
According to Agriculture Department guidelines, eligibility for SNAP requires a household income of no more than 130 percent above the federal poverty level. The number of people in the household also is a factor. The commission noted that most states have increased their income thresholds above that 130 percent guideline, so more people qualify for SNAP, which is run at the state level.
That means it is often easier to qualify for SNAP than for FSSA, the commissioners noted. Their analysis showed that of the 8,486 applications for FSSA in fiscal 2013, 96.6 percent were denied. That year, just 285 service members received FSSA benefits.
Statistics about how many active-duty troops use SNAP are hard to come by, said Robert Daigle, executive director of the commission. The Agriculture Department estimated that between 2,000 and 22,000 active-duty members used SNAP in 2012.
The report provides an example of FSSA benefits that would be received by an E-4 with two years of service, with a spouse and four children living at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Under FSSA, that service member would receive an increase of $77.65 a month. Under SNAP, he would get $178.58 a month on his electronic benefits card.
Eliminating the program would save the government about $1 million a year, the commission stated.
Joyce Raezer, executive director of the nonprofit National Military Family Association, said eliminating FSSA seems to make sense.
"Why should DoD be running an ineffective program meeting the needs of a few families when there's an option available to all Americans that more families could use?," she said. "The intent of FSSA was to get military families off food stamps, but it's gotten very few off. And it doesn't address the needs of young, large families.
But another nonprofit group contends that the military allowance needs to be reformed, not eliminated in the U.S.
"No doubt there are problems with FSSA and how it is structured," said Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, but added that she believes the allowance is "worth salvaging."
Her organization's mission is to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the U.S. and Israel.
MAZON contends that FSSA should be reframed so that its purpose is to eliminate food insecurity among military households, and establish automatic enrollment in FSSA for troops who would be eligible based on income and household size.
Leibman said the group began looking into options available for military families who were struggling to put food on the table, and found out about FSSA when researching what the military provides. She said group members were "shocked" by the number of people within the Defense Department and on Capitol Hill who were unaware of FSSA.
FSSA "needs to be fixed to look like a program designed to address hunger in military families," she said.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.