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Basic Needs Allowance for Low-Income Service Members

New Basic Needs Allowance for Low-Income Military Members

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2022 (NDAA) has been sent to the president’s desk for signature as of 23 December, 2021. If it becomes a law, provisions for a new Basic Needs Allowance will move forward in an effort to combat the food-security issues faced by many lower enlisted service members.

Food Insecurity in the Military?

In 2021, the National Military Family Association (NMFA) conducted a survey of over 11,000 service members and their families. They asked one question:

“In the past 12 months, have you, or someone in your household, had to visit a charitable food distribution site to make ends meet?”

The results of that survey are mind-blowing. The NMFA Survey found that 14% of those surveyed, or 1,632 military families, reported that they visited a food bank within the past year.

In another study, Blue Star Families conducted a Pulse Check between March 1-16, 2021. Over 4,000 respondents participated in the poll, which included active military, veterans, National Guard, Reserve, and Gold Star spouses or family members.

The Blue Star Family Pulse Check found that 18% of active duty families and 23% of National Guard families reported having difficulties in purchasing food and other essentials within the past year.

Furthermore, within the active duty ranks, food security ranked as a most immediate need for Junior Enlisted (22%), Mid/Senior Enlisted (20%), and Commissioned Officers (23%). In other words, nearly a fifth of the service members polled indicated that food security is an immediate need for them.

Military Family Basic Needs Allowance

With the passage of the NDAA, each of the services is supposed to identify families within their ranks who may benefit from the new Basic Needs Allowance.

According to the text of the legislation, any families whose income is below 130% of the federal poverty guidelines will be eligible for the allowance. For reference, the 2021 Federal Poverty Guidelines for a family of three is $21,960 annually, or $1,830 per month. 

The 130% amount for a family of three is $28,548 annually, or $2,379 per month. According to the 2021 Military Pay Charts, that would mean most lower enlisted service members ranked from E1-E3 are eligible if they have families.

How Much Is the Basic Needs Allowance?

According to the text of the bill, the amount of the allowance will be determined as follows:

The amount of the monthly allowance payable to a member…shall be the amount equal to 130% of the Federal poverty guidelines of the Department of Health and Human Services for the calendar year during which the allowance is paid based on the location of the member and the number of individuals in the household of the member during the month for which the allowance is paid; minus the gross household income of the member during the preceding year; divided by 12.

The gross household income means all household income, which seems to mean BAH and BAS are also included. However, the Secretary of Defense has the latitude to determine whether or not the BAH should be counted in the calculation of the new allowance. This provision mainly revolves around areas with a high cost of living.

What About Families with More than One Eligible Member?

If a household has two or more members who are eligible to receive the Basic Needs Allowance, only one of them can receive the allowance at any given time.

Who Is Not Eligible for the Basic Needs Allowance?

A service member who does not have dependents is not eligible for the allowance.

Cadets or Midshipmen at any of the armed forces service academies are ineligible for the allowance.

If a service member is eligible and then gets promoted, prompting for a permanent increase in pay, and that pay increase raises the service member above the policy’s financial guidelines, then that member becomes ineligible.

Curiously, if a service member is demoted and their pay is reduced to within the guidelines of the Basic Needs Allowance, that member will remain ineligible solely based on the reduction in rank.

Any eligible service member may voluntarily elect not to receive the benefit, and they must do so in writing.

How to Apply for Basic Needs Allowance

An eligible service member must apply for the Basic Needs Allowance once the administrative system is in place to do so. Because it’s a new program, they still need to figure out the regulations and policies necessary to administer it, as well as the forms necessary for submission by the service member.

The legislation does state that eligible service members will have to apply or verify their eligibility at least annually. So, it’s not a once-and-done allowance.

Once the Basic Needs Allowance is up and running, the services will begin screening recruits during Initial Entry Training to determine their eligibility.

Timeline for the Basic Needs Allowance

The allowance will begin on or after the date that is one year from the enactment of the National Defense Act of 2022. So, if the president signs it today, the allowance will begin a year from now.

The text of the bill also says that the termination of the Basic Needs Allowance will be December 31, 2027.

More Information Needed

The legislation tasks the Secretary of Defense to conduct a study on food insecurity in the Armed Forces. The results of this study will include:

  1. An analysis of “food deserts” that impact members of the military and their families who live in areas with high costs of living.
  2. A comparison of the current methodology used to determine areas with high costs of living.
  3. Leveraging the Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine the buying power and consumer spending in specific regions.
  4. The feasibility of setting up a web portal for members of the military to apply for the allowance.
  5. Determining an appropriate allowance to supplement the income of service members suffering food insecurity.

The Defense Secretary will report the initial findings of the study no later than April 1, 2022. The study must be completed and final results submitted to the Committees on Armed Services of both congressional houses no later than October 1, 2022.

That explains the 12 month delay to implement once the NDAA is signed.

Closing Opinion

First, it’s a shame that there are thousands of military families who struggle to make ends meet. With a wallet-killing inflation and a supply chain lag, the problem is fed by things that are largely outside of their control. Even so, no service member or their dependents should have to worry about food.

Second, I’m glad to see that the issue has made it to the halls of Congress. While this legislation is just the first step, only time will tell if the Basic Needs Allowance is as effective as we all hope.

Third, and this is just my bias as a Veteran, if they’re setting aside millions of dollars to implement a new program and conduct a year-long study, why don’t they just raise the pay of our service members.

I understand that food insecurity doesn’t impact a large portion of our Armed Forces. But even one Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airmen, Coast Guardsman, or Guardian who can’t feed their family is a national travesty.

 

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About the author

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Robert Haynes is a retired Army infantryman who has a squad of kids and is married to an active duty Soldier. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, who spent his last few years in the Army as a Drill Sergeant. He is now a full-time dad, freelance writer, and out-of-work comedian.