Record-breaking defense budget still does nothing to help soldiers who can’t afford enough food

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Our proxy war in Ukraine with Russia, rising tensions with China, and Congressional attachment to the military-industrial complex gave birth to the largest, ugliest defense budget in generations. This year, Congress overwhelmingly approved a record $858 billion defense budget and did so in almost celebratory fashion.

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

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

At 4.6%, the wage increase is well below the current inflation rate of over 6%; that hardly says much to the service staff, except “Please, now your situation is just a little less bad than 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 military personnel experienced “low food security” last year. To put that in perspective, about one in four military personnel lacked quality meals.

Of that 24%, 10% experienced “very low food security,” meaning they did some, if not all, of the following:

  • Eat less during meals
  • Missed meals altogether
  • Weight lost due to food insecurity

You all know I love my numbers, so let’s break that down even further. This study found that approximately 286,000 active duty military personnel had some degree of food insecurity and 120,000 in total were starving.

Please note; those numbers do not include the relatives of these military personnel or those Americans serving in the reserves. But do not worry; Congress is here to help because they all care so much about the troops, right?

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Devilish 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 supposed to raise members’ wages to 130% of the poverty line in their area.

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

How is it that this surcharge only helps such a small percentage? As usual, it’s because of the language in the bill that no one 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 living on base. Now for those of you who are not familiar, allow me to explain.

BAH is intended to help offset the cost of housing. For those who choose to live off-base or who don’t qualify for a base home, that amount is paid to them to cover rent and utilities. The local economy of each base is well aware of this amount. Most rent is at the BAH level, which means most members who must live off-base must go out of pocket for their utilities.

Say you’re lucky enough, depending on your perspective, to live on the base. In that case, your BAH goes immediately to the housing contractor, you know, the ones who are so well known for providing basic housing like Balfour Beatty.

So as Josh Protas, an expert on hunger policy, explains:

“Military housing payments are not counted against taxable income by the IRS and for most other federal programs. By counting them as income for those living outside the base, but not counting the value of housing on base for troops living there, programs such as the Basic Needs Allowance create a disparity in who can benefit from it.

And who actually benefits from it?

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Embarrassing

It is estimated that only 2,400 military personnel will be helped by this program, making them only 0.8% of the 286,000 who have not had proper meals and only 2% of the 120,000 who have gone hungry. And since I can’t help it, let’s look at another critical number.

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The basic necessities allowance comprised $12 million of the $858 billion defense budget. That’s 0.001% 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 were to scrap the language requiring BAH to be part of the income calculation for those living outside the base, it would only benefit about 50,400 military personnel, who still miss the bar en masse.

As Sara Jacobs, Congresswoman from the California Democrat, put it:

“This crisis not only blots our country’s conscience, but also damages our military readiness, recruitment and morale.”

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

In other words, they are people.

What kind of a country have we become when nearly a quarter of our military members go hungry as 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 possibly make the ultimate sacrifice do so for a variety of reasons, including myself. I came to because my socioeconomic background left me with no options, and I stayed for 20 years because I loved serving my country and being a part of something I thought was bigger than anyone else.

The same study commissioned by the Pentagon found that:

“Members with food insecurity were previously enlisted personnel in grades E-4 to E-6…”

It is also estimated that more than a million military households, including veterans like myself and Guard and Reserve, have been forced to use food stamps. What a terrible thing we stole from our country’s best; by not ensuring that our military and veterans have the means to support themselves and their families, we have stolen their dignity.

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

“There is a culture of resilience in the military community. And there’s the worry that if I seek support, I might be taking it away from someone else who needs it more than I do.

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

Who are they

I saw an acquaintance repost a Washington Post article on their LinkedIn profile saying it was an excellent piece designed to cut through the rhetoric and educate those of us who are too stupid to understand how DC 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 legislators to read the bills they pass, stating:

“…most legislators usually don’t read the text – and that’s fine. It’s not because they’re lazy. It’s because legislation involves a specialized kind 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 deliberately chose to vote on without reading, not because they’re lazy, that part is more than likely true. But because they don’t care.

Because if they had, they might have caught the language in the bill that keeps food aid dangling just out of reach of those who need it. So maybe the next time you see a military member in town or with his family, thank him for his service by paying for him a good meal; it may be one of the few they get this year.

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