Housing Allowance Shouldn't Stop Hungry Troops from Getting Food Stamps, Senators Say
Heather Campbell has been a military spouse for years. She walked away from a full-ride Ph.D. when she met her husband and later became a mother to three kids.
Campbell was once even selected as Eielson Air Force Base spouse of the year but she also faced unemployment as the family moved to remote locations such as Alaska. As a result, Campbell, who is now a registered dietician, and her family joined the nearly 25% of military families this past year that struggled to feed themselves, according to the Department of Defense.
"We get told to do more with less often in the military, but this is one of those things that we are not going to be able to do [alone]," she told Military.com in an interview Thursday. So, Campbell turned to advocacy and eventually made her way to Congress, where she helped persuade several lawmakers to try and close one of the biggest problems for service members struggling to put food on the table.
The result is a bill pending in Congress -- sponsored by Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska -- that would exclude the military's Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, from income calculations used to determine eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
That is an issue advocates have consistently pointed to as a key oversight that leaves low-income military families out of the program more commonly known as food stamps.
Food stamps are designed to provide families that meet a certain income threshold with vouchers that can be used to buy food. Although the program is administered by the Department of Agriculture, individual states get to decide who is eligible, which leads to issues for service members who are regularly moving from state to state. The result is military families can fall through the cracks.
A 2019 survey suggested that about 15% of military families had difficulty getting enough food for themselves and their families that year. Given that the active-duty population is typically around 1.3 million service members, that would put the number of troops struggling to get food in the hundreds of thousands. However, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office for the same year, just over 22,000 active-duty troops actually used the food stamps program.
The bill was introduced in March and hasn't seen any movement since. But in an interview this week with Military.com, Murkowski said she'd like to see it attached to the annual defense policy bill the Senate is expected to vote on in November, or another year-end legislative vehicle if it doesn't get on the defense bill.
"I would like to think that we all -- when I say we, Americans just generally -- would agree that our military families have enough to worry about with military members putting their lives on the line working to defend our nation. They should not be in a situation where they're facing hunger, where they're relying on food banks and food pantries to put food on the table," Murkowski said. "This is one way to help address hunger with our active-duty military families who are experiencing food insecurity."
Duckworth is "open to any legislative vehicles that can help address this critical issue because no one willing to serve this nation in uniform should struggle to feed their families," her spokeswoman Rachel Huxley-Cohen said when asked whether the congresswoman would also seek to attach the food insecurity measure to the annual defense bill.
Few, if any, National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, amendments ever get a vote on the Senate floor because of bickering among senators over which of the hundreds of proposals to grant a vote.
In a March statement when the bill was first introduced, Duckworth, a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel, said that "far too many of our military families are going hungry because of unintended barriers that make them unable to access essential nutrition assistance programs that they should be eligible for."
Duckworth herself used food stamps growing up after her father lost his job.
Campbell and advocate groups like the Military Family Advisory Network all say that the issue of hunger in the military has been around for decades. However, efforts by advocate groups to raise awareness and collect data on the issue have pushed the topic into the public space and allowed for greater discussions in recent years.
"In the last couple of years, legislators and top brass in D.C. have started taking notice of this topic ... so now we're sort of able to openly discuss if this really is a thing, why is it a thing, what's causing it?" Campbell explained.
"What we're finding is it's a lot more complex than just having a discussion about military paychecks," she said, adding that "there's so many other factors that go into it."
Last year's NDAA sought to alleviate food insecurity among military families by creating a new "Basic Needs Allowance" to ensure no service member's income falls below 130% of the federal poverty line. But advocates said it fell short because it too did not exclude BAH from income calculations. Instead, it leaves doing so up to the discretion of each service secretary.
Furthermore, the Basic Needs Allowance sunsets after five years and requires service members to apply for it, something advocates say could be a deterrent when there's a stigma to asking for help.
"It's not enough," Murkowski said of the Basic Needs Allowance.
The NDAA pending before the Senate this year already has a Duckworth-sponsored provision to beef up the Basic Needs Allowance. Specifically, it seeks to expand the pool of eligibility by increasing the maximum income from 130% to 150% of the federal poverty level.
Murkowski has seen food insecurity issues among military families in her state exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and this year's record inflation. She recalled visiting a food bank in Fairbanks before the pandemic and meeting military families volunteering there. Visiting again a few years later, military families were instead in line to use the food bank, she said.
Compounding the issue is the stigma within the military against asking for help, leading service members to say they are struggling to receive support. In fact, some troops have previously told Military.com that their superiors have been anywhere from indifferent to outright hostile to their struggles. Campbell is working to change some of those attitudes. The spouse and advocate noted that she just finished discussing the topic of hunger with the spouses of the service chiefs for the Air Force and Space Force.
"Leaders that are willing to listen, who are willing to learn and have those difficult conversations is really new in the military community," Campbell said. "We all see it, and it doesn't go unnoticed and we really appreciate it."
Many outside groups that work on the issue have also noted that the pandemic exacerbated the issue and led to more families turning to resources like food banks and assistance programs. One Army study, done at an unnamed base, saw that, out of a sample of nearly 5,000 soldiers, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the percentage of food-insecure troops to almost double from 16% to 31%.
"For the military families that are here in Alaska, the BAH is a little bit higher because of the higher cost of housing, but I will tell you, everything else is equally expensive," Murkowski said. "And so the ability to afford the food that you need for your family is just really, really challenged right now."
Murkowski, whose state has open primaries and ranked choice voting, is in a tough reelection campaign against a Republican opponent, Kelly Tshibaka, who received the endorsement of party kingmaker former President Donald Trump.
Traditionally, it is Republicans who have opposed expansions of food stamp benefits, including the reform proposed in Murkowski and Duckworth's bill. Murkowski is the only Republican co-sponsor of the bill, which also has 12 other Democratic co-sponsors. But she said she's hopeful she can get members of her party on board since they recognize inflation has caused food prices to soar.
"There is clearly support on the Republican side to ensure that, when we're talking about defense of our country, we're going to resource as is appropriate and needed, and we are willing to invest in the greatest technology to deter the threat, and we are willing to push forward funding for the assets that are required, whether it's the latest fifth-generation fighter or whether it's space communications," Murkowski said. "And yet, we've got to remember that the strength of the military is not the assets, it's not the latest technology. The strength of our military are our men and women."
Campbell was more direct: "Why is it that when we'll start talking about things on the chopping block, it automatically comes to the pay of the military families who are showing up for the mission, or service members showing up for the mission?"
By: Rebecca Kheel and Konstantin Toropin