U.S. Army troops deployed to the U.S.- Mexico border eat a Thanksgiving meal at a base near the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge on Nov. 22, 2018, in Donna, Texas.

U.S. Army troops deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border eat a Thanksgiving meal at a base near the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge on Nov. 22, 2018, in Donna, Texas. (Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Two dozen groups representing military families urged President Joe Biden this week to address a growing problem of hunger among lower-ranking U.S. military personnel and their families.

The groups, in a Tuesday letter to Biden obtained by CQ Roll Call, recommended that the president support a fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act that provides a “basic needs allowance” to help lower-income military families make ends meet.

“Reports of military families who struggle with food insecurity, turning in desperation to food pantries around the country, are shocking and unacceptable,” the letter said.

Biden and a broad swath of Congress want to launch such an aid program to combat poverty and hunger in the ranks — a problem that by all accounts the coronavirus has worsened.

But lawmakers disagree on how generous to make the proposed aid, and the White House has said it is undecided on that question.

“There can be no denying that food insecurity among military families remains a real and painful reality and that government safety net programs are not adequately meeting the needs of those who serve our country,” the organizations wrote. “The scope and severity of food insecurity for military families have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.”

The letter’s signatories include MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and other influential groups, such as the Military Officers Association of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, National Military Families Association, Blue Star Families and Vote Vets.

Both the House-passed version of the NDAA and the Senate Armed Services one would provide a basic needs allowance. It would cover the difference between a service member’s income and 130% of the poverty level.

But CQ Roll Call reported last month that the House bill explicitly requires that the income calculations must not include the basic allowance for housing, a stipend that about two-thirds of service members get to cover the cost of living off-base or in privately operated housing on base.

The amount of the housing allowance, which is determined by a number of factors, varies. But most Army privates, for example, earned an average housing allowance last year of just over $15,000 on top of just under $21,000 in basic pay, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The Senate bill is silent on whether the new program should count the housing allowance as part of income.

The White House Office of Management and Budget, in a Sept. 21 Statement of Administration Policy on the House bill, said the administration supports the basic needs allowance but “needs a more comprehensive data analysis” on whether the housing allowance should be counted toward income under the program.

In Tuesday’s letter to Biden, the military family groups urged him to back a version of the NDAA that excludes the housing allowance from counted income in order to provide assistance to as many families as possible.

Even the more generous House bill is fiscally manageable for the Pentagon. The Congressional Budget Office reckons the House provision would provide 3,000 families about $400 a month — at an annual cost of $14 million.

The groups also urged Biden to administratively change rules in federal nutrition aid programs that require that the military housing allowances count as income.

Currently, a number of the bigger programs, including the Agriculture Department’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, require that the housing aid must count toward income, which renders many military families ineligible for SNAP, the advocates say.

The groups also asked Biden to “prioritize a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Hunger that includes prominent consideration of veteran and military family food insecurity issues.”

On Thursday, first lady Jill Biden is among the speakers slated to address a conference hosted by the House’s Military Family Caucus. The event is expected to focus partly on food insecurity in the ranks.

The caucus is co-chaired by Georgia Democrat Sanford D. Bishop Jr. and Washington state Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

In addition to the NDAA bills, Bishop and Nebraska Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry have filed a measure that would create a new SNAP program for military families — one that would not require that housing allowances count toward income. The measure has been referred to the Armed Services and Agriculture committees.

Surveys of military personnel and their spouses suggest that thousands of them do not make enough money to purchase adequate food for themselves and their dependents.

A 2019 Military Family Advisory Network study surveyed 7,785 military personnel, including nearly 4,000 on active duty. Fully 9 percent of the active-duty respondents gave responses to a questionnaire that indicated they were suffering from hunger.

COVID-19 worsened the problem. A National Military Family Association survey found that 34% of spouses lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and another 25% saw their hours cut as a consequence.

What’s more, the letter to Biden notes, “recent Pentagon records show that during the 2018-19 school year, one third of military children at DoD-run schools in the U.S. were eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.”

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