The Latest on Military Family Food Insecurity & The Basic Needs Allowance

Published: August 30, 2019

The issue of food insecurity throughout our military community is far from new. But in recent months, it’s one that’s been getting a lot of attention thanks to recent advancements coming from the House passing H.R.2500: the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2020.

So we figured it was time for us to gather everything we know and share it with you to help you better understand how your military family might be affected. 

First, here’s what has been circulating in the news:

As mentioned earlier, On July 12, 2019, the House passed H.R.2500: the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2020, which governs the annual expenditures and budget for the Department of Defense (DoD). Included in this bill was Sec. 602: the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance (MFBNA)

The MFBNA seeks to alleviate food insecurity among the families of low-income active-duty service members by establishing a basic needs allowance to bridge the gap for personnel who don’t qualify for benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). More on this in a few minutes.

The inclusion of the MFBNA provision in the NDAA was championed by the nonprofit groups MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and the National Military Family Association, and  Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA-53).

A little background for you: MAZON was founded in 1985 to advocate for, protect, and strengthen government safety nets against hunger in the United States. Its mission is one that Blue Star Families can stand behind. In fact, we’ve partnered with MAZON on the issue of military family food insecurity in previous years.  (Many nonprofit organizations like MAZON rely on BSF’s annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey results to support their workespecially because there’s a lack of current data available on food insecurity among military families.)

Beyond that, on July 17, 2019, Rep. Davis (D-CA-53) introduced H.R.3801, which would establish a military family basic needs allowance should the MFBNA (Sec. 602 of H.R.2500) be omitted from the final version of the NDAA.

“Of all the sacrifices military families make, the ability to put food on the table should not be one of them. I’m proud to include language in the NDAA to create a basic needs allowance to bridge the gap for service members who don’t qualify for SNAP.” – Rep. Susan Davis  (D-CA-53) via MAZON

So, what’s the real deal with military family food insecurity?

Food insecurity is broadly defined as “the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.” And while you may not personally be affected by this issue at this very moment, a percentage of fellow military families who give their all to our country are forced to face this painful reality head-on.

In fact, in the 2018 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 7% of military family respondents and 12% of veteran family respondents indicated someone in their household faced food insecurity in the past year. Additionally, 9% of military family respondents and 18% of veteran family respondents indicated someone in their household had sought emergency food assistance through a food bank, food pantry, or charitable organization. 

All that to say, why are those who serve our country struggling to put food on the table? Because of insufficient service member compensation, inadequate Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), high rates of spousal underemployment, out-of-pocket expenses (such as relocation), and more. 

Now, let’s dive a bit deeper into those out-of-pocket expenses we briefly mentioned, shall we? 

According to Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a former Army helicopter pilot, it’s unfair to compare military families that are typically single income, to the average civilian family, which is usually dual income. Military spouses tend to move with their service members from base to base, and, as a result, “that spouse who’s following [their service member] around can’t actually grow a career… They’re at a disadvantage, and to say, ‘Yeah, well, she’s staying home, she should just do better with her budget,’ you know, that’s really insulting.” (NBC News)

While it’s easier said than done, military families need two incomes and finding military spouse-friendly work options. So much so that 70 percent of our millennial military family respondents (37 years old and under) in our 2018 Military Family Lifestyle Survey reported having two incomes was vital to their family’s well-being, compared with 63% of those over 37 years old. (This expectation persisted regardless of rank.) 

And when comparing military family respondents to their civilian counterparts, military family respondents also reported higher rates of difficulty making ends meet than civilian families (13% of military family respondents compared to 7% of civilian families), suggesting that the need for two incomes is not just an expectation but a genuine need for financial security. 

Despite all of this, in our 2018 survey, we found 30% of military spouse respondents were unemployed and among the 46% of military spouse respondents who were employed full-time or part-time, more than half (56%) reported that they were underemployed (meaning they may be overqualified, underpaid, or underutilized in their current position). Military and veteran spouse respondents qualitatively identified frequent relocations/permanent change of station as the cause for their underemployment, which was also reflected with the higher percentage of underemployed spouse respondents the more times military spouses relocated. 

Therefore, you might be wondering…
Can military families benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) seeks to alleviate food insecurity in the United States by providing food-purchasing assistance to low-income individuals and families. 

BUT, military families face a barrier to qualifying for SNAP because the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) is treated as income to determine eligibility. 

What does this mean, exactly? Many military families are ineligible for SNAP, despite being food insecure. 

Meanwhile, housing vouchers for low-income civilians are not treated as income for the purposes of determining SNAP eligibility. For most federal assistance programs, however, BAH isn’t treated as income.

“As a result, younger enlisted service members with large households are disqualified from getting the help they need from SNAP when their BAH gets treated as income” Josh Protas, Vice President of Public Policy at MAZON, said

Has anything been done to provide an alternative?
The short answer? Yes. 

The long answer? In 2018, MAZON attempted to amend the farm bill (where SNAP is authorized) to exclude BAH as a source of income for program eligibility. While MAZON’s amendment made it through the House, it failed in the Senate. And unfortunately, the farm bill won’t come up for reauthorization for another five years. So the issue can’t be resolved by removing the SNAP barrier until then. 

For that reason, MAZON’s primary objective, which BSF fully supports, is to ensure that the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance (MFBNA) provision makes it into the final version of the 2020 NDAA.

So how exactly does the MFBNA come into play? Mainly, it would supplement the base pay of junior enlisted members at or below 130% of the federal poverty line. (Note, to qualify for SNAP, you must be at or below 130% of federal poverty line.)

Therefore, BAH would not be treated as income when calculating eligibility for the Basic Needs Allowance. Moreover, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) will automatically notify service members of their eligibility (there would be no need to notify command that your family is food insecure).

As Protas explained, “The Military Family Basic Needs Allowance will be structured in a streamlined and efficient manner to eliminate common barriers to nutrition assistance including shame, stigma, and fear of retribution.”

Nevertheless, while the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports that the MFBNA would cost approximately $43.75 million a year, the House NDAA only authorizes $15 million a year. 

“According to an analysis of the proposal by the Congressional Budget Office, the 10,200 qualifying service members would receive an average allowance of $400 each month. The allowances would cost DoD about $175 million over the four years from 2021 through 2024. The House version addresses only fiscal 2020, authorizing an additional $15 million for the allowance for fiscal 2020.” (Military Times)

Still, something is better than nothing!
Okay, what are the next steps to bring this to life?

Well, Congress is on summer recess until September 9. So while the Basic Needs Provision did not make it into the Senate version (S.1790), the House and Senate bills will soon be sent to conference. At that point, the differences between the two will be ironed out by a committee of House and Senate representatives. And the final bill will be sent back to both chambers for a vote.

Yes, there’s momentum here. But the critical thing to note is that there is a real danger that the MFBNA provision will be removed from the final version of the NDAA in conference.

Why might the MFBNA provision be removed from the final version of the NDAA?

Because it’s met by opposition in the White House. The proof is in their Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the House version of the NDAA (H.R.2500)

“The Administration strongly objects to [the MFBNA] provision because it would be an unnecessary entitlement. Military members receive appropriate compensation already. Most junior enlisted members receive pay that is between the 95th and 99th percentiles relative to their private-sector peers.”

Plus, the DoD argues that in addition to basic salary, service members already receive a food allowance—a basic allowance for subsistence (BAS). 

And on top of that? This issue of food insecurity among our nation’s military families is something the DoD tries to keep out of the public eye because of the concern that it would affect recruitment and retention. 

As Protas indicated to NBC News: “I think for DoD this is a public relations issue. They would rather it just went away or was dealt with quietly. Unfortunately for the families that are struggling, ignoring the issue won’t help their circumstances.”

But there’s a solid case against those in opposition to the MFBNA provision.

First, the BAS is only meant to offset costs for the service member’s meals and is not intended to cover the costs of meals for family members. (Source)

Not only that, but while service members are paid a basic allowance for housing (BAH), this allowance is often insufficient, too. 

How so? 

In our 2018 survey, we asked: “What amount of your monthly out-of-pocket housing costs, including utilities, are not covered by your BAH?” And here’s what we found:

  • 43% of respondents had out of pocket costs less than $500 per month
  • 8% had out of pocket costs between $500 and $1,000 per month
  • 2% reported out of pocket costs of over $1,000 per month

And that’s not all. Military family respondents reported relocating an average of four times due to military orders and, although the federal government covers the majority of expenses incurred by relocation, one third (31%) reported spending over $1,000 in unreimbursed expenses during their last move. Thus, over an average of four moves, military families may spend over $4,000 in out-of-pocket moving expenses. 

“The military pay system is not designed for junior enlisted members with families in high-cost areas,” Rep. Davis said, noting the problem is exacerbated by the military lifestyle. Spouses often have difficulty getting a job because of frequent moves, when it’s all the more critical to have a second income. – Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA-53) via Military Times

Ultimately, when service members can ensure they’ll be able to provide for their family’s basic needs, unnecessary stress and anxiety is eliminated. And, as a result, this kind of security contributes to optimal mission readiness.

As Sen. Duckworth (D-IL) argued to NBC News: “We’re willing to spend hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars on a fighter jet—which I want our troops to have—to carry them into battle. But if the people that are working on them can’t focus on turning the wrenches and maintaining the equipment because they’re worried whether or not their kids are hungry, what’s the point of having that fighter jet?”

With all that in mind, what can the BSF community do to help?
If you feel inspired to lend a helping hand, here’s how MAZON encourages you to do exactly that:

Cultivate support for the Basic Needs Provision by:

1.  Sharing this article (and others) on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets

2. Contacting the following legislators:

  • Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK, chairman of SASC)
  • Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI, ranking member of SASC)
  • Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC, SASC member
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY, SASC member)
  • Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA-9, chairman of HASC)
  • Rep. Mack Thornberry (R-TX-13, ranking member of HASC)

Prefer to help by way of step #2? To contact one of these legislators, you can phone the United States Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121, and ask to be directed to the office of the representative/senator of your choosing.

Alternatively, you can search for your senator’s contact information here and your representative’s information here.

What additional issues are most important to our military families? 

We’ll be releasing our 2019 Military Family Lifestyle Survey results in early 2020. But you can join Blue Star Families for free today to read through the 2018 analysis of trends related to significant shifts in military issues. We can’t wait to welcome you to our family!