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GI Bill BAH Cut Would Force Some Families to 'Reevaluate our Budget'

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Some military families with adult children currently using a transferred GI Bill say while the housing allowance the students get as a part of the transfer eases their financial burdens, they understand why officials are looking to reduce it.

Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year approved a measure as part of the Veterans Employment, Education and Healthcare Act that would cut in half the housing allowance for military dependents using a transferred GI Bill.

The new rule would only impact benefit transfers that take place more than 180 days after the change is signed into law. It would not impact families who have already transferred the benefit, are currently using the benefit or transfer it during that 180 day period.

The savings from the cuts would cover the costs of a variety of programs, including increases to other aspects of the GI Bill. For example, it would fund two Fry Scholarship expansions for spouses of troops killed in action after September 11, 2001, as well as a measure allowing Guard and Reserve members on medical hold from injuries received on active duty to earn their GI Bill faster than has traditionally been permitted.

A service member's GI Bill can be transferred to his children or spouse and split between them by months. The housing allowance payment is also split by months, meaning that if a child is given five months of the benefit, he will receive five months of housing allowance based on the zip code in which his school is located.

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Military families interviewed by Military.com said they worked with their children to choose a school based off  knowledge that the money provided through the housing payment would cover much of their living expenses. They said without it they would likely have had to make different, less expensive decisions, such as choosing a school close to home.

"It wouldn't be devastating -- I'm not going to make it sound absolutely horrible, but it would make us reevaluate our college budget," said one Army spouse who asked that her name not be used because of her husband's job.

She said they will be putting at least one child through school using the GI Bill, and possibly splitting it between two children. They'll also be tapping into personal savings.  Any money they have saved for college costs that isn't used will pay for her husband's master's degree after he retires, she said.

Erin Ward, whose husband serves in the Army, said her family could not afford to send her two children to school away from home were it not for the full housing stipend. Ward's children, who split the GI Bill benefit, go to school in two different states. One child lives in school dorms, while the other rents an apartment. The housing payments help them cover the costs of those living quarters, she said.

"There's no way we could do this without that, I don't know what we would've done without it," she said.

Ward said their family viewed the GI Bill transfer as a "thank you" gift to their children for dealing with 15 military moves over their lifetimes. The housing allowance payment allows them to go to school without worrying about holding down a job so they can afford living expenses, she said. Without it they would likely have to work their way through school.

"The one thing we wanted to give these military kids was some kind of stability, and that's what the housing allowance gave us," she said. "We told them 'you get to go to school and not worry as much about this stuff as much as other kids.' That's a benefit their father gave them to say 'hey thanks for hanging in there, military brats.'"

Still, she said she knows that tight budgets mean that sometimes cuts have to happen to fund other programs, such as the three GI Bill expansions included in the House legislation.

"As military families we have to look at it and say 'what's best for the greatest good?'" she said. "I think that that's a big thing -- stop looking at what's best for you and you have to look at the greater good."

Alice Swan, whose daughter is using her father's transferred GI Bill to attend a state college in Pennsylvania and will graduate this year, said a 2015 rule requiring state schools to extend in state tuition rates to GI BIll funded students has drastically reduced their costs.

The housing allowance, she said, covers her daughter's living expenses as well as other expenses like books, which cost far more than the GI Bill book stipend covers. A housing allowance cut, she said, will likely force families like her's to deeply examine where they send children for school.

"It will make families in the future take long, hard looks at where their child goes to school," she said. "More families may have to pick having the child living at home."

--Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @amybushatz.

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