A New Cash Benefit Will Expand to More Military Families This Summer, Pentagon Says

Shelves of staple food items are stocked on Fort Jackson commissary shelves June 23. While contracted personnel stock the shelves, Fort Jackson, Mississippi, volunteers help keep shelves stocked throughout the day. (Alexandra Shea/Army)

More military families could soon be eligible to apply for a new monthly cash allowance meant to alleviate food insecurity as the Pentagon plans to expand the pool of those who qualify in July, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said late last month.

The Basic Needs Allowance, or BNA, began this year and is currently only for service members who have dependents and whose gross household income fell below 130% of the federal poverty level for their family size and location. To qualify, their income must have fallen below the threshold in both the previous calendar year and annualized for the current year.

The BNA amounts to however much will bring a family's income up to the 130% line. While families are to be notified by the Defense Department that they may qualify, the benefit is not automatically paid. Instead, they must apply to receive it.

The fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act raised the income threshold for eligibility to 150% of the federal poverty level, starting in 2024. Now the DoD plans to make that happen sooner, in July, Austin told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 28.

Inability to put enough food on the table, known as "food insecurity," affected 24% of active-duty troops within the year prior to a 2020 DoD survey.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a member of the committee, asked during the hearing whether the Pentagon also planned to stop factoring in troops' Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH, when deciding whether they fall below the BNA income cap.

The DoD considers BAH to be part of troops' gross household income when determining whether a family is eligible for BNA, but it's not required to do so by law. Military family advocates have suggested removing BAH from the calculation, saying it's inherently inequitable because of how BAH rates vary by location and larger families still get the same BAH as smaller ones.

Removing BAH from the BNA income calculation would theoretically help more families to become eligible while avoiding the same outcome of a past, failed program known as Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance that proved less helpful to families than federal food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Austin pointed out that introducing the BNA hasn't been the only approach to raising families' incomes.

"You've seen us ask for a pay raise last year of 4.6%, you've seen us raise BAH amounts and you've seen us work to get child care costs down," Austin said. "We're trying to increase the resources and reduce the strain on families so hopefully that total equation will create benefits for our families and our troops."

Specifically in terms of removing BAH from the BNA income calculation, however, Austin said only:

"We will do what's ever feasible -- what we're allowed to do by law."

Amanda Miller can be reached at amanda.miller@military.com.

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