Service members struggling to pay for groceries could have more access to food stamps under new bill
Stars and Stripes February 16, 2023
WASHINGTON — Low-income service members receiving basic allowances for housing could be eligible for food stamps under legislation introduced Thursday in the Senate.
The bill aims to help the 24% of troops who the Defense Department reported lack consistent access to enough food by eliminating an income barrier some of them face when trying to qualify for food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP.
Service members who apply to the SNAP program while receiving an allowance to cover off-base housing costs are often excluded from eligibility due to a formula that unfairly counts their housing as a source of income, said bill sponsor Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former Army helicopter pilot and Iraq War veteran.
However, the housing allowance is not treated as income by the Internal Revenue Service or considered when determining eligibility for other federal assistance programs, she said.
“This bill is a great, elegant solution,” Duckworth said. “It isn’t creating a new program, it’s simply bringing an existing program in line to be consistent with the rest of the federal government.”
Lawmakers first introduced legislation to amend SNAP’s eligibility criteria last year. The bill builds on Duckworth’s previous efforts to address hunger in the military, including creating a monthly basic needs allowance for service member households earning below 130% of the federal poverty line. Eligibility for the new payments, which began last month, was expanded in last year’s annual defense policy bill.
The Defense Department estimated in a 2022 report that 286,000 service members struggled with food access in 2020 and 2021, with junior enlisted troops most at risk.
“I think most Americans would be shocked, absolutely horrified and shocked if they knew that 20% of all active-duty service members have experienced some level of food insecurity in 2020 and 2021,” Duckworth said. “There is this myth that it's a young, enlisted man who blew his entire paycheck on a Harley, right? That's not who these folks are. These are folks who are hardworking military families. They have one or two children and they’re lower enlisted and then they find themselves in trouble.”
A January study performed by the Rand Corp. found early- to mid-career enlisted personnel between the pay grades of E-4 and E-6 were the majority of those affected by food insecurity. Service members who are single with children or married without children and identify as ethnic or racial minorities were more likely to go hungry, according to the study. The Army saw the most food insecurity while the Air Force saw the least.
The report, which Congress directed the Pentagon to sponsor, also noted 14% of service members reported using government food assistance programs in the past year. Others said they were reluctant to ask for help, fearing it would negatively affect their career or security clearance.
Duckworth, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she will make certain the military does not penalize service members who seek out food assistance. The military has encouraged troops to take advantage of food programs, especially since the coronavirus pandemic led to mileslong lines at food banks across the country, she said.
“When I first started out in the military, almost 30 years ago, on every military base there was a pawn shop and a tattoo parlor,” Duckworth said. “Well now it's a pawn shop, tattoo parlor and a food pantry.”
Those on-base food pantries are often showing struggling service members how to sign up for SNAP benefits, she said.
“The military, certainly, is not going to hold the need for food assistance against them,” Duckworth said.
The proposed qualification changes to the SNAP program failed to gain traction in Congress last year despite bipartisan support in the Senate and House and endorsement from multiple advocacy groups. But Duckworth said she is confident she can push the measure into the comprehensive farm bill that legislators are set to pass this year. The bill is enacted into law every five years.
“I'm very passionate about hunger issues and I'm also very passionate about military families and supporting our military men and women,” she said. “They deserve to get help, they’re defending all of us. They deserve to be able to know that their families aren’t going hungry.”