Alison* (not her real name) is a military spouse, and she helps feed her family using food stamps, properly known as Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Does this sound crazy to you? It sounds crazy to a lot of other people, too. But there are a couple of reasons why military families use food stamps.
Alison’s husband is an E5 in the Army, and he makes about $3,100 a month in base pay, plus Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) of $1,152 per month and an Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS) of $368 per month for his food needs. Altogether, that makes about $4620 income each month. However, their family has nine members, meaning that they qualify for SNAP benefits.
Eligibility for SNAP benefits is based upon an involved formula that rests primarily on family income and family size, though there are other considerations such as child care costs, housing costs, and alimony payments. Generally speaking, most military food stamp recipients are lower-ranking service members who have been in the military for only a few years. The two other groups are larger families, like Alison’s, and those families who are making child support payments.
The military does offer an allowance that is designed to eliminate the need for food stamps. The Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance is a cash benefit paid by the military, but many families don’t use it because they don’t want to apply through their command or they run into difficulties with the program.
How many military families receive food stamps? No one really knows for sure. Neither the military nor the USDA, who administers food stamps, tracks this information. Educated estimates range from 2,000 to 22,000 families, which is a pretty big range and demonstrates the difficulty in tracking these figures. We do know that $84 million in food stamps were redeemed at military commissaries in 2014. However, commissary shoppers include military retirees, members of the National Guard and reserves, and 100% disabled veterans, and active duty families often shop off base. As a result, the number of food stamps being used at commissaries doesn’t show how many active duty families receive these benefits.
How does this compare with the general population? Military food stamp usage is actually quite low compared with civilians. It is estimated that 13% of the total population receives food stamps in 2013, whereas 1-2% of military families receive SNAP benefits.
Alison’s family hasn’t always had food stamps, but they help. They previously received the military’s Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance, but they had trouble getting the paperwork through the command. Her family has food allergies, so food banks aren’t an option for them. Alison shops carefully, using discount stores and markets to keep food costs as low as possible. Even so, SNAP benefits allow her to improve her family’s diet.
Alison’s attitude is amazing. I asked what she would do without food stamps, and she said, “We’ve gone without. I can get by. Rice and beans. I’m pretty resourceful.”
In a perfect world, no military member would need food stamps to feed their family. The reality, however, is that junior enlisted pay is designed to be for a typical new enlistee: young, just out of high school, and with limited work experience. Older enlistees, and those with families, and even more senior folks with larger families, still qualify for federal food assistance programs.
Do you want to know more about your military pay and benefits?
Things change fast around here! Keep up-to-date with email alerts about the topics that are important to you!