The Pentagon is increasing housing allowances and temporary lodging reimbursements to military families as it grapples with food insecurity and hard economic times caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday.
Austin said he ordered the department to come up with a new strategy within three months to help hungry service members and their dependents. In the meantime, military leaders will get an "economic security toolkit" on how to identify troops experiencing food insecurity and connect them with resources, the secretary directed in a newly published memo.
The assistance comes as housing and rental rates surge in some military communities in the U.S. due to shortages caused by COVID-19, and aid groups say many service members have struggled to feed themselves and their families since the virus emerged in early 2020.
"Our men and women in uniform and their families have enough to worry about. Basic necessities like food and housing shouldn't be among them," Austin said in a press briefing at the Pentagon.
The effort to shore up economic security also includes an order from Austin for military commands to allow longer assignments and overseas tours, as well as leniency on when service members are to show up for new assignments.
Service members in 56 geographic areas where housing costs have risen at least 10% could be eligible for a temporary Basic Allowance for Housing boost to cover it. The initiative touted by Austin was originally announced in September and will last until new rates are announced in December and hit paychecks on Jan. 1, 2022.
Temporary lodging reimbursement for families looking for homes or rental properties will be extended beyond 10 days in areas with shortages, Austin said.
The pandemic, which caused more people to work from home, led to a boom in housing sales and increased prices, while the cost of renting dropped off, making it more affordable. Construction was slowed and could not keep up with demand, leaving families to compete for places to live.
Austin said "the pandemic and tight housing markets across the country have made financial struggles even tougher" for the military's 2.2 million active-duty and reserve troops.
Food insecurity among military families has been a striking and largely unseen effect of the pandemic. As many as 160,000 active-duty enlisted service members have difficulty getting enough food, and 29% in junior enlisted ranks reported food insecurity over the previous year, the group Feeding America estimated.
During a recent House hearing, Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., said that 22,000 households with a service member received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, funds, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Austin said the DoD is rolling out what it calls the Military Leader's Economic Security Toolkit, which will consist of online help at the Military OneSource website.
"The toolkit has specific resources for leaders on how to identify service members who are struggling to feed themselves and their families, how to engage in difficult conversations to assess food insecurity, and connect service members to additional resources and support programs addressed to alleviate food insecurity," according to Austin's memo.
Here are some of the changes Austin told the military to pursue:
- Extend accompanied tours at overseas locations with quality of life that is comparable to the U.S. when possible.
- Extend the 36-month time-on-station limit for troops within the continental U.S. when possible.
- Allow maximum flexibility on dates when service members are supposed to show up for assignments to alleviate problems finding housing.
- Expand financial counseling and education, as well as spouse employment resources.
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.