Congress Unlikely to Expand Military Food Stamp Eligibility This Year

The commissary at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia. (Photo: U.S. Army/Nell King.)
The commissary at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia. (Photo: U.S. Army/Nell King.)

A change that would have increased the number of military families who qualify for food stamps is unlikely to be considered this year due in part to an administrative decision by a U.S. congressman.

Currently, Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) is counted as part of total household income when a military family applies for the food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

But anti-hunger advocates say that including the allowance in the calculation creates a disparity between families because BAH levels fluctuate by location. For example, a BAH rate in a high cost-of-living area, such as San Diego, can bump a family out of SNAP eligibility when the help is most needed because food costs are also higher, advocates say.

BAH is calculated by Defense Department officials to cover housing costs, not food costs.

Advocates say the cost-of-living adjustments families receive in high-cost areas don't make up for the increased cost of food. BAH is not considered taxable income by the Internal Revenue Service and is not counted as income for a variety of other public assistance programs, including the Women, Infants and Children program.

The number of military members who suffer what anti-hunger advocates call "food insecurity" is notoriously difficult to quantify or track, in part because it is unknown how many military families use the SNAP program or food banks. A 2016 Government Accountability Office report citing U.S. Census Bureau data said that about 23,000 active-duty troops received food stamps in 2013.

About 751,000 food stamp transactions, or almost $80 million in purchases, were completed at military commissaries in 2015, the latest year for which data were readily available. But it is unclear whether those users were active-duty shoppers who regularly receive BAH, or other patrons, such as retirees, National Guard members or reservists.

The proposal, the Military Hunger Prevention Act, would block BAH from being counted as income for SNAP eligibility calculations. Doing so would likely dramatically increase the number of military families who qualify for food assistance. Lawmakers proposed paying for those cost increases through higher Tricare pharmacy co-pays. Proponents had sought to roll the new proposal, sponsored by Rep. Susan Davis, a California Democrat, into the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

But to do so, the House Armed Services Committee needs an administrative waiver from the House Committee on Agriculture, which has legislative oversight of the SNAP program.

The chair of that committee, however, told members of the House Armed Services Committee last week that he will wait to consider the bill next year as part of the notoriously controversial Farm Bill because he objects to paying for the increase through a Tricare fee change.

"The problem we've got with this is that it pits SNAP benefits with increased Tricare costs," Rep. Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican who chairs the Agriculture Committee and sits on the Armed Services Committee, said in early July. Conaway promised to consider the issue in the Agriculture Committee in the future.

But anti-hunger advocates decried his decision, saying that granting the waiver to consider the proposal now does automatically mean there will be a Tricare pharmacy fee increase -- it simply gets the issue debated.

"Struggling military families shouldn't have to wait for help another year or more for the next Farm Bill," said Abby Leibman, president of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a primary supporter of the change.

The current Farm Bill, which authorizes a variety of agriculture programs, expires in 2018. Lawmakers will likely attempt to pass a new one and debate other unrelated changes to the SNAP program next year.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

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