More service members will soon qualify for a new allowance that’s designed to help them put food on the table.

Defense officials plan to change eligibility rules for the Basic Needs Allowance in July, increasing the income eligibility cap to 150% of federal poverty guidelines, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said during a March 28 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

That’s six months before DoD is required by law to make the change. The higher income cap “will allow us to help more families,” Austin said.

In a related move, two members of the House have introduced legislation to make the Basic Needs Allowance tax exempt.

Mandated in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, the allowance serves as a safety net for military families to help combat food insecurity. It went into effect in January, and currently goes to troops whose total family income is less than 130% of federal poverty guidelines, which, in addition to total family income, are based on household size and location.

In the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, lawmakers included a provision raising the income eligibility cap for the allowance to 150% of federal poverty guidelines, which would allow more families to qualify. DoD is required to implement the new provision by 2024, but the law allows them to do it earlier.

Initial screening by the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy found 85 service members who may be eligible. The Army issued its guidance on Feb. 27 and has begun screening its soldiers.

Based on Defense Department estimates, the higher income cap would increase the number of active duty families who might be eligible for the allowance to about 2,400.

One sticking point is that the Basic Allowance for Housing is counted as income by DoD when calculating eligibility. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, asked Austin whether he would consider removing BAH from the calculation for the Basic Needs Allowance.

“We will do whatever’s feasible or what we’re allowed to do by law,” Austin replied.

Military family advocates have argued that BAH should be excluded when calculating total family income for the nees allowance, but Congress left it up to DoD to determine whether to include it. Defense officials have since agreed to exclude the housing allowance for some service members — but only in high cost-of-living areas as determined by defense officials.

“DoD’s own surveys show that 24% of our service members experience food insecurity,” Gillibrand said. “Last year, I met with military families on Staten Island who spoke about the challenges they face in basically putting food on the table to feed their kids.

“However, very few service members are considered eligible for Basic Needs Allowance … since [the housing allowance] is included in family income calculations.”

Without a change, the needs allowance “will remain out of reach for families who need it the most,” said Eileen Huck, government relations senior deputy director for the National Military Family Association.

Lawmakers call for tax exemption

Meanwhile, two congressmen have proposed legislation that would make the Basic Needs Allowance tax exempt.

“Taxing support meant to help the most vulnerable undermines the purpose,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Arkansas, who introduced the proposal March 22 with Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Michigan. “BNA should be treated like other military benefits outside of earned income, which is exactly what this bill prescribes.”

Military members “deserve to receive the full value of their military benefits,” said Kildee. “The Basic Needs Allowance, which helps support thousands of service members and their families, is not income and should not be subject to income taxes.”

Family advocates support the efforts to make the BNA tax free.

“Congress’ intent in authorizing BNA was to put more money in low-income military families’ pockets, not to increase their tax burden,” said Huck.

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.

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