Record-Breaking Defense Budget Still Does Nothing to Help Soldiers Who Can’t Afford Enough Food

    Our proxy war in Ukraine with Russia, rising tensions with China, and Congress’ attachment to the military-industrial complex allowed the birth of the biggest, ugliest defense budget seen in generations. This year Congress overwhelmingly passed a record-setting $858 billion defense budget and did so in and almost celebratory manner.

    You’d think within that monstrosity of a bill that most of the members of Congress who couldn’t read even if they had wanted to, there would be some money in there to improve servicemembers’ lives.

    There was a pay raise. The highest pay raise the military has seen in 20 years, in fact. But hold on.

    At 4.6%, that puts the pay raise well below the current inflation rate of over 6%; that’s barely saying much to servicemembers other than ‘Here you go, now your situation is just slightly not as terrible as it was before.’

    But the biggest insult is how this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) made it harder for active duty members to get the help Congress claimed to provide.

    Mouths To Feed

    A study commissioned by the Pentagon last year found that 24% of active duty servicemembers experienced “low food security” last year. To put that into perspective, roughly one in four military members lacked quality meals.

    Of that 24% there were 10% who experienced “very low food security,” which means they did some, if not all, of the following:

    • Ate less at mealtime
    • Missed meals altogether
    • Lost weight due to food insecurity

    You all know I love my numbers so let’s break that down even further. This study found that about 286,000 active duty military members had some level of food insecurity and 120,000 went hungry altogether.

    Mind you; those numbers don’t include family members of these service members or those Americans who serve in the reserves. But don’t worry; Congress is here to help because they all care so much about the troops, right?

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    Devil’s In The Details

    The NDAA includes an income supplement for low-ranking military members to alleviate the food insecurity crisis. In 2022 this ‘basic needs allowance’ was to boost members’ pay to 130% of the poverty line in their area.

    This year that percentage boosted to 150% of the poverty line. But, according to the Pentagon, it will only help less than 1% of servicemembers.

    So why is it that this allowance only helps such a small percentage? As usual, it’s due to the language in the bill that nobody reads.

    The allowance requires that the income calculation for servicemembers include their Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) if they live off base but not for those who live on base. Now for those of you who are unfamiliar, allow me to explain.

    BAH is meant to help offset the cost of housing. For those who either choose to live off base or who are ineligible to live in base housing, that amount is paid to them to cover rent and utilities. The local economy of every base is well aware of this amount. Most rent is at the BAH level, meaning most members who have to live off base have to go out of pocket for their utilities.

    Suppose you are lucky enough, depending on your perspective, to live on base. In that case, your BAH immediately goes to the housing contractor, you know, the ones so well known for taking care of base housing like Balfour Beatty.

    So as Josh Protas, a hunger public policy expert, explains:

    “Military housing payments are not counted toward taxable income by the IRS and for most other federal programs. By counting them as income for those who live off base but not counting the value of on-base housing for troops who live there, programs such as the basic needs allowance create a disparity in who can benefit.”

    And just who is benefiting?

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    It is estimated that only 2,400 servicemembers will be helped by this program, making them just .8% of the 286,000 who have lacked good meals and only 2% of the 120,000 who have gone hungry. And because I can’t help myself, let’s look at another critical number.

    The basic needs allowance comprised $12 million of the $858 billion defense budget. That’s .001% of the defense budget, which is about as much as lawmakers care about those who support and defend the Constitution.

    What’s more, if Congress removed the language requiring BAH to be a part of the income calculation for those living off base, it would only benefit roughly 50,400 servicemembers, still massively missing the bar.

    As Democrat California Congresswoman Sara Jacobs put it:

    “This crisis isn’t only a stain on our country’s conscience, but also harms our military readiness, recruitment, and morale.”

    While I mostly agree with Ms. Jacobs, I think this goes much deeper than just a readiness issue. It’s high time our elected leaders, political defense appointees, and the American people stop equating feeding this nation’s military members with readiness as if it’s part of a weapons system. Soldiers are unique in that, while they are weapons systems, they are biological entities with basic requirements.

    In other words, they’re people.

    What kind of a country have we become that almost a quarter of our military members face starvation while we ask them to risk their lives to fight our wars?

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    Who We Are

    Those who raise their right hand to don the uniform and potentially give the ultimate sacrifice do so for various reasons, including myself. I joined because I lacked options due to my socioeconomic background, and I stayed for 20 years because I loved serving my country and being a part of something I believed was larger than anyone.

    The same study commissioned by the Pentagon found that:

    “Food insecure members were more likely to be early-to mid-career enlisted personnel in grades E-4 to E-6…”

    It is also estimated that over one million military households, including veterans like myself and Guard and Reserve, are forced to use food stamps. What a terrible thing we have stolen from the best of our country; by not making sure our military and veterans have the means to support themselves and their families, we have stolen their dignity.

    As Shannon Razsadin, who leads the Military Family Advisory Network, explains:

    “There’s this culture of resilience in the military community. And there’s this concern that if I seek out support, that I may take it away from someone else that needs it more than me.”

    Because that is who we are, let’s talk about who they are.

    Who They Are

    I saw an acquaintance repost a Washington Post article on their LinkedIn profile, stating it was an excellent piece meant to cut through the rhetoric and educate those of us who are too dim to understand how D.C. works. The article written by Paul Waldman was titled ‘6 Things People Believe About Politics that are Totally Wrong’.

    In it, Mr. Waldman explains that it is unreasonable to expect our lawmakers to read the bills they vote to pass, stating:

    “…most legislators usually don’t read the text – and that’s fine. It isn’t because they are lazy. It’s because legislation involves a specialized type of language, written by experts for purposes that have nothing to do with understanding and wise decision-making.”

    So it was an unelected bureaucratic mechanism that wrote our defense bill that elected lawmakers willfully chose to vote on without reading, not because they are lazy, that part is true more than likely. But because they don’t care.

    Because if they had, they might’ve caught the language in the bill that continues to dangle food assistance just out of reach of those who need it. So perhaps next time you see a military member out in town or with their family, you can thank them for their service by paying for a good meal for them; it may be one of the few they get this year. 

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