Why we need Congress to help more military families qualify for food aid
Imagine serving your country, but needing help to feed your family — and because of a quirk in the law, you don’t qualify for food stamps. This is the harsh, underreported reality for thousands of currently serving members of our armed forces.
That’s why the Military Hunger Prevention Act, introduced in the House of Representatives last week, must be passed by Congress. The bill’s sponsors are Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kansas, and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minnesota.
The bill remedies a technical error that has prevented military families from qualifying for federal nutrition assistance benefits, particularly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
SNAP is the largest and most impactful anti-hunger initiative in the nation, known in California as the CalFresh program. An estimated 22,000 military households — typically lower-ranking enlisted service members with larger households — receive SNAP benefits to help put nutritious food on the table.
Unfortunately, SNAP eligibility rules have kept thousands of other military families from receiving the same assistance, causing unnecessary and unfair hardship. Service members and their families living in off-base or privatized housing receive a monthly Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) that often disqualifies them from receiving SNAP because their BAH is counted as income for the purposes of determining eligibility.
There is no justifiable reason that BAH should be considered differently for SNAP than other federal programs.
Federal tax law exempts BAH from taxation by the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS also lists BAH as one of the tax-exempt military allowances not considered as earned income when determining eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and the Head Start program.
By including BAH as income, a barrier to accessing SNAP has been created — one that has led military families in San Diego and across the country to turn in desperation to food banks.
Information obtained by MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a leading national anti-hunger organization, reveals that food pantries operate on or near every single naval and marine base in the United States. At Camp Pendleton alone, a Government Accountability Office report released last year identified four food pantries on base, with one of those programs providing food assistance to an average of 400 to 500 Marine families every month.
The 2015 Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey found that 6 percent of respondents had sought emergency food assistance through a food bank or other charitable organization.
And data obtained from the Department of Defense shows that, on average, of the 19,001 children enrolled in DODEA schools in the U.S. during the 2014-2015 school year, 26 percent qualified for free meals and 25 percent were eligible for reduced-price meals.
If we, as a nation, are committed to fully supporting military families, we must preserve their dignity by ensuring that one of life’s basic necessities — food — is met.
Addressing this issue of hunger requires recognition of the unique circumstances inherent in military life.
Certainly some situations, such as unexpected financial emergencies, are similar to challenges faced by civilian counterparts. Others, though, are specific to active-duty careers, including unemployment or underemployment among military spouses; the costs incurred as a result of frequent permanent changes of station (household moves); and activation and deployment. For example, the 2015 Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey found that 75 percent of military spouses reported that being married to a member of the military had a negative impact on their ability to pursue a career.
Higher levels of unemployment among spouses as well as skyrocketing housing costs in some areas of the country, including San Diego County, have an adverse impact on the financial stability of military families, often leaving them straining to make ends meet.
The SNAP program is an incredibly effective response to food insecurity. By excluding BAH as income when determining eligibility for SNAP, this legislation makes good on our national commitment to take care of all those who proudly serve in our armed forces.
Let’s ensure that no military families are left behind to struggle with hunger.
Davis, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, is a San Diego Democrat who was first elected to her congressional seat in 2000. Leibman is president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a Los Angeles-based national organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel. Website: mazon.org