More troops would be eligible for new allowance under DOD proposal

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More military families could become eligible for the Pentagon’s Basic Needs Allowance under a proposal included in the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2025 budget request on Monday.

The plan to grow the program comes as fewer than 100 troops across three services have begun receiving the need-based stipend, created as a financial safety net for low-income troops with at least one dependent. If enacted, it would mark the initiative’s second expansion since it became law in late 2021.

On average, BNA participants in the Army, Navy and Air Force currently receive between $17,100 and $27,000 in taxable aid a year.

Defense officials want to expand the pool of people who may qualify for the financial aid initiative to include families who earn a gross household income of up to 200% of the annual federal poverty level, Pentagon Comptroller Michael McCord said during a Monday budget briefing. That cutoff currently stands at 150%.

“The FY 2025 budget request includes $245 million to raise the income eligibility threshold for the Basic Needs Allowance,” according to Pentagon budget documents. “This proposal would help ensure that service members would not have to rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).”

The income ceiling varies based on a household’s size and location. For instance, the 150% cap currently stands at $30,660 for a family of two, or $79,080 for a family of eight, in the 48 contiguous states. If expanded to 200%, the Basic Needs Allowance would become available to those making $40,880 for a family of two, or $105,440 for a family of eight.

Family advocates support any expansion of the Basic Needs Allowance “to help ensure that it reaches military families who need it,” said Eileen Huck, the senior deputy director for government relations at the National Military Family Association.

“I’m not sure how many families would benefit from increasing the ceiling to 200% of federal poverty guidelines, but we commend the [Biden] administration for recognizing that more needs to be done to support struggling military families,” she said.

The monthly payments are calculated by taking 150% of the current year’s federal poverty baseline and subtracting the previous year’s gross household income, then dividing that total by 12, according to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service.

To dole out the stipend, service officials first screen all military members and notify them if they are potentially eligible to benefit from the program, signed into law as part of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.

Then it’s up to troops to apply for the money by providing information about their gross household income. Service members can apply even if they aren’t told they might qualify. People are most often deemed ineligible because their gross household income, including their spouse’s earnings, exceeds 150% of the federal poverty level.

Service members who receive the aid must recertify each year that they still qualify, or notify officials when changes occur that may affect their eligibility, like an increase in gross household income or change in household size.

Raising the bar for eligibility by thousands of dollars could help bring more families into a program that has struggled to attract those who need help the most.

Just 77 military families across the Air Force, Army and Navy received the Basic Needs Allowance in 2023 — about 1% of almost 6,000 troops deemed potentially eligible for the program, and far less than 1% of the nearly 450,000 active duty enlisted troops with families in those branches, spokespeople for each service told Military Times. Enlisted troops typically make about half or less of what commissioned officers earn.

Recipients get an average stipend of more than $1,000 each month. They include:

  • Army: 12 soldiers in the grades of E-1 to E-6, with an average household size of eight people, received the stipend as of Jan. 11, according to Army spokeswoman Heather Hagan. The Army notified about 5,600 soldiers that they were potentially eligible for aid; 12 people had applied as of Jan. 11. All 12 were awarded the funds, Hagan said. The monthly stipends average $2,250 for soldiers.
  • Navy: 31 sailors in the grades of E-1 to E-7 received the Basic Needs Allowance as of Dec. 31, said Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. John Stevens. In 2023, Navy officials identified 161 sailors who were potentially eligible for the stipend; 82 sailors applied after a local screening by their command. Of the sailors who were deemed ineligible or otherwise did not receive aid, it was primarily due to additional household income, such as a spouse’s earnings, Stevens said. The monthly stipends average $1,425 for sailors.
  • Air Force: 34 service members in the grades of E-2 to E-7, with an average household size of five people, received the Basic Needs Allowance as of Dec. 31, said Air Force spokeswoman Master Sgt. Deana Heitzman. In 2023, Air Force officials identified 170 service members who were potentially eligible for aid. Of the 292 troops who applied for the stipend, 258 were ultimately disqualified. The monthly stipends average $1,851.80 for airmen.

The Marine Corps did not answer by press time how many of its members have received the Basic Needs Allowance.

It’s “hard to reconcile” that fewer than 100 families are receiving that aid, Huck said. But she’s unsurprised the numbers of Basic Needs Allowance recipients are low, given that DOD includes other household income and the military’s housing allowance when determining eligibility.

“I’m just stunned by the disparity” between the services, Huck said.

Experts particularly questioned what happened in the Army’s selection process that led only 12 people from a pool of 5,600 potentially eligible soldiers to apply.

While a Rand Corp. analysis of who might be eligible for the stipend indicated few troops would qualify, “I can’t explain why people who appear to be eligible are not applying,” said Beth Asch, a senior economist at the federally funded think tank.

”You have to think some families fell through the cracks,” Huck added.

The Army did not respond to a request for further details by press time.

Previous changes

Officials have already raised the Basic Needs Allowance’s income cutoff once before, adding nearly 2,000 people to the pool of those who may qualify for aid.

The income ceiling rose from 130% of the federal poverty line to 150% last year. Defense Department estimates showed the higher cap could qualify about 2,400 more families for the stipend.

In reality, around 1,850 families joined the list of possible aid recipients, the services told Military Times.

When the eligibility cap was raised, about 1,600 of the 400,000 soldiers who were screened were told they could get the stipend, said Hagan, the Army spokesperson. That brought the total number of soldiers notified of eligibility in 2023 to about 5,600.

Raising the ceiling also grew the number of potentially qualified airmen from 41 to 170, and of potentially qualified sailors from 44 to 161, Air Force and Navy spokespeople said.

It’s unclear how many more people could qualify for the Basic Needs Allowance if the program is again expanded to 200% of the federal poverty line.

Food insecurity persists

The gap between eligible troops and BNA recipients persists amid a spike in living costs, from grocery prices to housing expenses, and as many military families continue to struggle with food insecurity.

About 25% of active duty spouses reported being food-insecure as part of the Defense Department’s 2021 Survey of Active Duty Spouses. Yet only 3% of spouses who responded to the survey reported using SNAP benefits, formerly known as “Food Stamps,” in the previous 12 months.

The survey also found that 31% of enlisted spouses are food-insecure, including 45% of spouses of junior enlisted service members in the grades of E-1 to E-4; 30% of spouses of midlevel E-5s and E-6s; and 16% of spouses of senior enlisted troops at E-7 and above.

The federal government labels food insecurity in two categories: “low food security,” or when someone routinely lacks a variety of good-quality, desirable food options, but typically eats enough; and “very low food security,” or when someone experiences multiple instances of “disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”

Of the 25% of active duty spouses who are food-insecure, 15% reported low security and 10% reported very low security.

Three-quarters of active duty spouses who responded to the survey reported being “food-secure” — having enough access to quality food so all members of their households can live active, healthy lives.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book “A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families.” She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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