A troubling pattern has emerged within the active-duty military community of young, enlisted families facing food insecurity. With many military spouses losing their jobs in the economic fallout of COVID-19, food access problems for these families have taken on a new sense of urgency.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, should help military families during this crisis, but some do not qualify for assistance even when they cannot afford adequate food. In the next coronavirus relief bill, Congress should revise the way SNAP eligibility is determined for military families to recognize their unique situation and to ensure that no military family struggles to afford food.
On-base food pantries have observed a substantial increase in visits as the coronavirus pandemic has put many military spouses out of work. The Armed Services YMCA, which hosts food pantries across military installations, reported an “increase in demand by four to five times” over the last four weeks. In the recent Blue Star Families’ “Pain Points Poll,” 9 percent of military families said they only had enough money to buy a week of groceries. The current pandemic exacerbates a small, but meaningful problem that already existed prior to COVID-19. A 2015 study at Joint Base San Antonio found that 1 in 7 families using on-base childcare reported food insecurity, which the USDA describes as “the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources.”
The reasons for this disturbing trend are complicated. The military sufficiently compensates most members and they offer special benefits to service members, from an annual uniform allowance for enlisted personnel to all-encompassing health and dental benefits. Still, the youngest, least-educated, and lowest ranking members often struggle to make ends meet. This makes the use of food assistance an important resource. But a flaw in how housing costs are treated in determining SNAP eligibility leaves too many military families without this necessary support.
The problem involves how SNAP counts the military’s Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) when determining eligibility. Currently, this housing allowance counts as income when a military member’s household applies for nutrition assistance, even though it is “actually a non-taxable portion of a service member’s pay which allows for equitable housing compensation,” as a group of military service organizations recently wrote in a letter to Congress. Adding this allowance into income calculations makes many service members’ households ineligible for SNAP, even though they might still struggle to afford food with their non-housing related income.
The BAH is only used for housing and, therefore, is not like typical income. It varies by region to reflect local housing costs. In high-cost areas such as Quantico, Virginia, it can be $1,521 per month or more depending on family size. If you live on a military installation, you never “see” this money — it goes directly to pay for quarters and covers the majority of utility costs. If you live in private housing, you take the allowance and use it for rent, plus utilities and insurance. In high-cost areas, young service members with families often use their entire allowance and sometimes more for housing, leaving little left over for additional shelter costs, such as utilities or a phone line — this condition, of course, bleeds into food purchase.
Congress should revisit SNAP eligibility for military families in the next coronavirus relief bill. Like households with an elderly or disabled member, households with a military member should only have to meet a net income test for SNAP eligibility and not a gross income test. The net income test deducts living expenses such as housing from gross income. If net income is under 100 percent of the federal poverty threshold, the household qualifies for food assistance. This would give military families with a large housing allowance, but an otherwise limited income, help affording adequate food for their families. Lawmakers should also consider increasing the “shelter deduction” cap for military families and extend this provision until consideration of the next farm bill, which authorizes SNAP.
In 2000, the late Senator John McCain stated, “…just one service member on food stamps is a national disgrace…It is unconscionable that the men and women who are willing to sacrifice their lives for their country have to rely on food stamps to make ends meet.”
The senator’s indignation is correct though perhaps misplaced: SNAP can be a useful resource to military families, but it requires a change. By revising the way eligibility is determined for military households, Congress could — in a smart way — help an important demographic feed their families during this economic crisis. Making this change in the long-run would ensure that no family who serves in our country’s military will struggle to afford food.
Frances Tilney Burke is a visiting research fellow in foreign and defense policy focusing on veterans and military families and Angela Rachidi is the Rowe Scholar in poverty studies, both at the American Enterprise Institute. Rachidi was a former deputy commissioner for New York City’s Department of Social Services from 2007-2015.
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