Military families struggling to pay their bills may get some relief late next year in the form of a basic needs allowance to cover food and other necessities.
The National Defense Authorization Act approved by the Senate on Wednesday and set to be signed soon by President Joe Biden includes a provision that will give lower-income military families a new, non-taxable stipend to make ends meet.
Advocates who lobbied for the legislation are disappointed in the way Congress determined eligibility by including service members' Basic Allowance for Housing in the income caps, which may exclude most troops.
Those who will be eligible for the allowance include service members whose gross household incomes do not exceed 130% of the federal poverty level, based on their pay and size of family.
In 2021, the limit was $21,960 for a family of three and $26,500 for a family of four, meaning that eligible military families in these categories would need to make less than $28,548 or $34,450 to qualify.
"Ultimately ... Congress chose a path that helps far too few military families -- serving only a fraction of the thousands of hungry military families," said Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON, a national organization fighting to end hunger, in a press release following Senate passage of the bill.
"As housing prices continue to go up in many areas, families need every penny of their BAH -- and then some -- to cover housing costs. It shouldn't count against them when it comes to getting much needed help to pay for food," officials with the National Military Family Association said in a post on their website.
The provision does include a way for the defense secretary to skirt the inclusion of BAH in determining eligibility for some service members, however: It allows the Defense Department to discount any "portion of the BAH" in the case of a member who resides in "an area of high cost living," as determined by the secretary.
"The language provides wiggle room," officials with the National Military Family Association wrote in a press release. "But it also leaves lots of questions unanswered: What portion? And what constitutes a high-cost area?"
According to the legislation, service members would be required to apply for the allowance and could start receiving it beginning a year after the bill is signed.
The bill does not spell out that process. It only states that the services will notify members that they may be eligible for the new allowance and allow them to apply.
In November, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the department to develop a strategy over the next three months to help hungry service members and their dependents.
About 14% of enlisted active-duty families reported "low" or "very low" food security in an annual 2020 survey, according to Denise Hollywood, the chief community and programs officer for Blue Star Families.
The group Feeding America estimates that 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.
Nearly 33% of 5,600 people surveyed on an unnamed Army installation reported some type of food insecurity in the past year, meaning they faced hardship or had problems making their food budgets stretch across a month.
The legislation also calls for the defense secretary to conduct a study on food insecurity in the armed forces, to include examining food deserts -- places that lack a nearby grocery store -- and analysis of areas with high costs of living.
The provision is a modification of a bill introduced in the Senate by Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and in the House by Reps. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., and Don Young, R-Alaska.
"Far too many of our military families experience hunger because of unintended barriers that make them unable to access nutrition assistance programs," Duckworth said following passage of the legislation. "As someone whose family relied on public nutrition programs after my father lost his job, and who served in the uniform for most of my adult life, I'm so glad this provision to help make sure our service members and their families have enough to eat has been included in the NDAA."
-- Military.com reporter Konstantin Toropin contributed to this report. He can be reached at Konstantin.Toropin@Monster.com.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.