This column is by Amy Bushatz, executive editor of Military.com.
It's a personnel and public relations nightmare for the Pentagon: troops unable to keep food on the table thanks to a toxic combination of high cost of living, low take-home pay and family size. And now, a new paycheck allowance set to start in January that officials claim will help solve the problem could be out of reach for many who need it.
It all comes down to a simple question, advocates say: Will the nontaxable housing allowances, which can be thousands of dollars and are calculated by location, be considered income or not?
That's the question the Pentagon has to answer as officials design use of the new Basic Needs Allowance, ordered in this year’s defense policy bill and set to roll out Jan. 1. A five-year pilot program, BNA is supposed to boost troop pay to 130% of the federally set national poverty level by giving extra cash to those who make below that amount in gross household income, about $36,000 for a family of four.
But counting as income all special pays and allowances would block some service members from being able to access federal food assistance, assistance they may still need despite the new BNA.
While officials must tell troops they might qualify, service members can choose whether to apply or not. In many circumstances, accepting BNA will mean families aren’t eligible for the federal food stamp program, also known as SNAP, because their incomes would be too high to qualify. In its most generous form, BNA could pay about 10,200 service members an average of $400 each month, according to estimates.
That thousands of military families struggle to consistently put food on the table isn't a secret. A 2020 survey of service members by the Pentagon found 24% of the 125,000 active-duty troops surveyed experienced food insecurity at some point over the 12 months prior, according to a Defense Department report released in July. The new BNA is flagged in that report as a top way to fix the problem. It was also heralded as a solution to hunger during a recent White House summit.
But just how the Pentagon plans to identify the haves and have-nots has yet to be announced. Congress left the question largely up to officials under the secretary of defense. They are free to include some, all or none of the Basic Allowance for Housing payments in their qualification rules, according to the law.
Family advocates say BAH should be excluded entirely because it is inherently inequitable. Based on location and targeted to cover 95% of housing costs, it often doesn't fully pay the bill, especially in high-cost areas with tight markets or for families who have more children than the number of bedrooms the blanket "with dependents" rate is designed to cover. Large families in very high-cost-of-living areas receive higher BAH, but likely also have greater expenses than it's meant to match.
That means leaving BAH out of the calculation could add thousands of military members to the BNA rolls, they say, while adding it could instead block them completely. Additionally, those who live off base would have it counted, but those who live on base would not. And with the clock ticking on the upcoming rollout, military family advocates are pressing both policy and lawmakers to shore up the benefit designed to help alleviate the military’s very real hunger problem so more people can actually use it.
"I don't think having this include BAH is in the best interest of the military members," said Heather Campbell, a food insecurity advocate and Air Force spouse stationed at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. "It looks good on paper but at the end of the day may not help anybody."
Campbell has personal experience with the issue. While stationed in the area in 2015 and unable to find work in the rural community that would offset the cost of child care, her family struggled to live off one income and pay off her student loans. Including BAH in their income calculation meant they didn't qualify for federal food assistance. Instead, she says they made things work by cutting portion sizes or skipping meat.
"We were doing all the things right," she said. "But we still just couldn't make it work."
Today, her loans are paid off and they are in a much better financial position, she said. But she watches struggling military families around her and worries they're under the same stress.
For those who have been around military benefits for a while, the new BNA might sound suspiciously like the old Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance (FSSA), which was killed for most users in 2016 because it didn't work. A military modernization commission ordered by Congress found troops could receive more help through food stamps than the allowance thanks to calculation differences. FSSA did include housing allotments in its eligibility calculations. The report found FSSA was poorly advertised and embarrassed needy troops by requiring them to apply for it through their chain of command. Only 285 people across the DoD used it in 2015, the report said.
Killing FSSA without a replacement was met at the time with major opposition from advocates.
"While the current program is certainly a failure, for many months we have been advocating directly to the Department of Defense to make four common sense changes to the current FSSA program, which would make it far more viable as an important resource to military families," officials with MAZON said in a 2015 release. "FSSA, if properly restructured, is the most viable and potentially effective way to end hunger in our military."
It took a few years, but officials with MAZON and several other advocacy organizations were instrumental in laying the groundwork for BNA. Originally proposed as a new, better replacement, it excluded BAH from the calculation and automatically enrolled users instead of making them apply. But that's not what passed into law in 2021, which instead passes the buck to the Pentagon.
"Congress gave them pretty wide latitude to determine how much BAH, if any, will be excluded from income eligibility. They have latitude on the application process, and it's up to them," said Eileen Huck, a deputy director of government relations at the National Military Family Association and one of the chief advocates for the new benefit. "I think there's recognition within the department that they have to take concrete steps to address these food issues."
Things have changed a little in the last year as the Pentagon has turned to easing the financial burden on military families in the face of near-record inflation and recruitment and retention woes. Huck said it's possible officials will include only a percentage of BAH in the calculation.
Pentagon officials said they anticipate making a decision soon.
"The Department of Defense will soon be issuing Basic Needs Allowance implementing guidance so the first payments can go out in January 2023 as required by law," Navy Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a DoD spokesperson, said in a statement. "BAH remains a fundamental component of military compensation and the Department is actively consulting with multiple stakeholders on this issue and expects to come to resolution soon."
Congress could take steps to fix the problem. Both the Senate and House versions of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act contain measures changing BNA income eligibility. The Senate version raises the threshold to 150% of the federal poverty level, while the House version blocks counting BAH.
But unless something changes, BNA is danger-close to working a lot like FSSA. And considering that FSSA was killed because it was ineffective, those similarities probably aren't a good thing.
For example, in the case for ending FSSA, the 2015 modernization report noted that an E-4 with two years of service and five dependents at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, would qualify for $77.65 under FSSA but $178.58 from SNAP. According to a calculation by Military.com, that same E-4 today would make about $40 too much to qualify for the new benefit with BAH included in household income.
By law, BNA is a pilot program that can simply disappear if Congress doesn't renew it. Josh Protas, vice president of public policy for MAZON, said even getting BNA passed into law was a win. But he also knows if BNA is on the same road as FSSA, it will be underutilized just like FSSA -- and ultimately not renewed.
"It won't serve anyone if the Basic Needs Allowance is stood up with flaws inherent in it. It runs the risk of another FSSA program that is doomed because of flaws that are baked into its structure," Protas said. "We'd like to get it right now."