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Proposed Food Stamp Cuts Would Hit Military Families

Shoppers at the Fort Drum commissary. Ashley Patoka/Northern Regional Medical Command
Shoppers at the Fort Drum commissary. Ashley Patoka/Northern Regional Medical Command

President Donald Trump's proposals to cut eligibility for food stamps would hit hard on thousands of military families who receive the benefit, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

"It's a very unfortunate situation," Army Lt. Gen. Anthony R. Ierardi, the Pentagon's Joint Staff Director for force structure, readiness and assessment, said of the difficulties of troops who have to resort to food stamps.

Ierardi did not immediately have an estimate on how many troops were on food stamps but said he had personally dealt with the problem of families struggling to meet their dietary needs in a previous post as a division commander. He said the military would seek to mitigate the impact on families if the proposed cuts to the food stamp program were approved by Congress.

Amy Bushatz of Military.com last year cited a report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office which said that the Department of Defense lacked the data or coordination with other federal agencies to keep an accurate track on how many troops were receiving food stamps.

The report found that about 23,000 active duty service members received food stamps in 2013, according to U.S. Census data. In addition, information from the Department of Defense Education Activity showed that in September 2015, 24 percent of 23,000 children in U.S. DoDEA schools were eligible for free meals, while 21 percent were eligible for reduced-price meals.

"While it is known that service members use food assistance programs and that information on recipients can be obtained, specific data on service members' use of these programs are not available because there is no requirement or need that has been established for agencies" to collect the information, the GAO report said.

In a White House briefing Monday on the budget, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney indicated that the Trump administration was ready to press a crackdown on eligibility for food stamps and other benefits as part of sweeping cuts on federal anti-poverty programs.

Mulvaney said that more low-income Americans would need to work to qualify for benefits. "If you are on food stamps, and you are able-bodied, we need you to go to work," Mulvaney said, although members of the military now eligible for food stamps already have a full-time job in defense of the nation. "We believe in the social safety net" in the Trump administration. "We really do," said Mulvaney, a former Republican representative from South Carolina who was a member of the House Freedom Caucus.

"What we have done is not to remove the safety net for folks who need it, but to try and figure out if there's folks who don't need it," Mulvaney said.

The White House estimated that changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, would save $193 billion over 10 years.

At a Brookings Institution forum on Monday, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, acknowledged the plight of troops who have to turn to food stamps.

"There shouldn't be anyone who falls into that category" in the military, but "they absolutely can be eligible for food stamps," Thornberry said. Congress had a responsibility to make sure that troops received adequate pay to avoid going on food stamps, Thornberry said.

Under questioning at the Pentagon briefing Tuesday, Ierardi and John Roth, who was performing the duties of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), were in the uneasy position of arguing for major increases in military spending that would be offset by cuts in social programs for the poor, some of which benefit military families.

"It's not my place to comment on politics," Roth said. Ierardi said "It's our responsibility to advocate for the force."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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