An allowance designed to help needy troops buy food and other basic necessities could be expanded by Congress' upcoming annual defense policy bill.
The House's draft version of the bill, set for release later this month, is expected to include legislation that would allow more service members to qualify, essentially by decoupling it from the Basic Allowance for Housing, two congressional aides told Military.com. But the aides cautioned that the bill language is subject to change.
The Basic Needs Allowance, or BNA, was created two years ago to address hunger among low-income troops, and each year similar attempts to expand it in the House's bill have failed. But the latest effort comes after just a fraction of the troops estimated to be suffering from food insecurity have been found to be eligible for the BNA in its current form.
The draft defense bill still has a months-long road to passage, and eventually must be reconciled with the Senate's version of the mammoth, must-pass legislation.
More than 280,000 of active-duty service members, or about 24%, reported some level of food insecurity in 2020 and 2021, with junior enlisted personnel at the highest risk for hunger, according to Defense Department data released last year.
To address that, the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, passed in 2021 created the BNA to ensure no service member's income falls below 130% of the federal poverty line.
But under that criteria, less than 100 troops were reportedly found to be eligible for the stipend.
In last year's NDAA, Congress expanded eligibility by increasing the maximum income to 150% of the federal poverty line. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said the Pentagon plans to implement that expanded eligibility criteria in July.
But advocates say the main issue limiting eligibility for the BNA is that the BAH is included in income calculations to determine eligibility for the food assistance allowance despite not being considered taxable income -- skewing the picture of troops' personal finances.
While the BAH can add thousands dollars a month to a service member's paycheck, depending on their rank, dependents and location, that stipend has also faced scrutiny and reform efforts in recent years for failing to keep pace with housing markets.
The House Armed Services Committee's draft of this year's NDAA is expected to exclude the BAH from income calculations used to determine eligibility for the food assistance allowance.
A spokesperson for the committee would not comment on the language in this year's NDAA ahead of the bill's release.
While Congress did not specifically exclude the BAH from income calculations for the BNA in past NDAAs, it did give the defense secretary the authority to waive the inclusion of the BAH in determining the BNA eligibility. But Austin has been cagey about whether he would use that authority.
"We will do whatever's feasible -- what we're allowed to do by law," he said at a Senate hearing in March.
Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., reintroduced a stand-alone bill to exclude the BAH from income for the BNA.
One of the Senate's original proponents of the BNA, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., told reporters Thursday that her focus this year is more on expanding eligibility for food stamps, rather than the BNA. The food stamp program, formally known as SNAP, similarly calculates income using the BAH, and Duckworth has introduced a bill to change that, which she hopes to include in upcoming legislation to reauthorize agricultural programs, known as the Farm Bill.
"The reason I think the Farm Bill is the better way to go is because then it's an elegant and easy fix," she said. "I'm going to continue to push Basic Needs Allowance, but I do think in the short-term that there's a better shot at getting this done under the Farm Bill."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.