WASHINGTON – The Pentagon will increase housing payments for troops in key areas and look for ways to combat hunger across the force, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Wednesday, in the department's latest effort to address food insecurity among service members.
Austin told reporters that troops have enough to worry about and that “basic necessities like food and housing shouldn’t be among them.”
According to an estimate by Feeding America, as many as 160,000 active-duty military members are having trouble feeding their families. The group, which coordinates the work of more than 200 food banks around the country, estimates that 29% of troops in the most junior enlisted ranks faced food insecurity during the previous year.
He said the department will immediately provide a temporary increase in the housing allowance for troops who live in areas where rent costs have gone up by at least 10% this year. Temporary lodging reimbursement will be extended for those moving into communities with housing shortages.
Austin said he has given the undersecretary for personnel 90 days to develop a longer term strategy.
The exact scope of the problem is a topic of debate, due to a lack of formal study. But activists say it has existed for years and primarily affects junior-level enlisted service members — ranks E1 to E4 in military parlance — with children.
Lower-ranking enlisted troops receive modest pay, and their frequent moves make it difficult for spouses to find steady work. The problem is exacerbated by an Agriculture Department rule that prevents thousands of needy military families from accessing the SNAP government assistance program, commonly known as food stamps.
Service members who do not live on bases get a housing allowance, which is counted as income in calculating their eligibility for food stamps. That additional amount, which is not counted as income for other federal programs, often enough to disqualify families for the food assistance.
Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a former Blackhawk pilot who lost both legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq, has sponsored a bill that would establish a Basic Needs Allowance payment for military families in need.
Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., has sought a Pentagon study of the problem and a repeal of the USDA’s Basic Allowance for Housing regulation.
In addition to the immediate actions, Austin said in a memo that the department should look into a number of other steps to increase stability for service members. They would include extending the tour length for troops deploying to some locations overseas, when they are accompanied by their families.
Where possible, he said the department should consider extending the three-year time limit on assignments at bases within the United States.
Austin also said the Pentagon should take steps to improve financial education and counseling for troops.
Associated Press writer Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.