More troops and military families redeemed food stamps at military commissaries last year than ever before, according to statistics from the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) -- but is it really the dire situation it seems?
About five percent more shoppers used food stamps at commissaries in 2013 than used them in 2012. But the increase is actually a sign that use is leveling off instead of quickly increasing as it had been before. Between 2011 and 2012 it went up 13 percent. And back between 2008 and 2009 it went up 70 percent, according to figures from DeCA.
I'm conflicted about this. On the one hand, surely we should be paying our military members enough that food stamps are out of the question. On the other hand, is the need for food stamps really as high as it seems?
The food stamp increase doesn't track with the rate of use of the Woman and Infant Children (WIC) subsidy. Army Times reported in October that those numbers were trending steadily downward. About 6 percent fewer military families used WIC at the commissary in 2013 than in 2012.
I think we can all agree that it is a little embarrassing that, without going into the matter further, the cash military members are making puts them below the poverty line and qualifies them for food stamps.
But is this really something we SHOULD be embarrassed about? Are servicemembers really as hard off as this data makes them seem?
Food stamp eligibility is based on income, assets (including vehicle), household size and a series of deductions to arrive at "gross monthly income."
If you are living in on-base housing, the calculation does not include BAH.
Edit: One of the reasons you read so little about food stamp eligibility is that it's a complex issue. You can see in the links above where I got my information on the subject -- from the USDA, which administers the federal portion of the program, and Military One Source, which had details on the military side. However, what I failed to mention and our commenters have correctly pointed out below is that some of these rules vary by state. My examples are based only on the federal information.
That means that a married E-2 without any children who lives on base qualifies for food stamps. That same couple living off base somewhere like Fort Campbell, Ky. increases their income by about $13,000 and no longer qualifies. Many E-4s living on base with even one child would also qualify for food stamps if they chose to apply. But, again, the more than $13,000 they'd making living off base bumps more than likely bumps them out of the qualification bracket.
There is no question that hunger is a very serious issue. (And before you go saying "that's easy for you to say -- you're probably never been on food stamps" know that my entire family back home has been on food stamps for three years). Whether it is because they lack financial literacy or the skills to make good financial decisions or because their family size outweighs their military income, some military families really are in need to food assistance and financial help. And we don't want to ignore or make light of their situation.
But simply flinging around food stamp redemption statistics without diving into the whole story has a "poor you, military family" flavor that makes me prickle. When you combine our allotments, base pay and benefits like commissaries and Tricare (which are thought of as "non-monetary compensation" for a reason -- because they make the rest of the payout reasonable), life isn't so bad.