A provision in the House's fiscal 2021 defense policy bill would give some service members an additional allowance to cover the cost of food and other basic needs -- a stipend advocacy groups say is needed to relieve financial and psychological strain on young military families.
But to become law, the measure must be agreed to by the Senate, where it faces the same challenges it endured last year before it was dropped, including a fiscally conservative Republican-led negotiating body and reluctant White House.
Still, advocates and House lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said Wednesday they are more optimistic about passage of the measure, which would give an additional monthly allowance to service members whose gross household income does not exceed 130% of the federal poverty guidelines.
Among the reasons for their hope: a tweak to the proposal that would take the application process out of the chain of command and make it incumbent on the Defense Finance and Accounting System to notify troops of their eligibility and require service members to furnish information on any spouse employment to receive the stipend.
Service members also could opt out of the effort.
Advocacy groups concede there is little data on the extent of food insecurity among military families, but say they know troops often rely on food banks located near their duty stations.
"The Pentagon says that, when you compare the pay and benefits counterparts in the private sector, it's more than fair. But the fact that we have food pantries that are serving military families across the country says otherwise," said Josh Protas, vice president for public policy at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.
The proposed stipend would be equal to 130% of the federal poverty guidelines minus the service member's gross income (not counting any allowances) divided by 12.
For an E-4 with several years in the military, a spouse and two children, this would equate to roughly $250 extra a month.
For Bianca Strzalkowski, that funding would have gone far to help feed her family of five, including husband Ron, a now-retired Marine gunnery sergeant, and three boys. As newlyweds at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Bianca earned a substantial income, and the couple "built their lives on the budget of two incomes."
But after receiving orders to Yuma, Arizona, she struggled to find a commensurate job that would cover the cost of child care. "We quickly spiraled into a sad, and what I would [call] shameful, time as he was a sergeant in the Marine Corps," she said.
They turned to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and a food bank, where they received recently expired food from grocery stores. They occasionally ate military-issued Meals, Ready to Eat, she said.
"While he was deployed to places like Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, we were unsure truly how we were going to make ends meet, pay our bills and feed our family on a continuous basis," Strzalkowski said.
She added that she only just now is speaking about her experience because her husband retired in 2018.
"The external message [in the military] is, you should seek help, but there is an unspoken code in the military to not talk out loud," she said.
Protas said that one in eight military families faces food insecurity, compared with one in 10 families in the general U.S. population.
A 2016 Government Accountability Office report found that more than 23,000 active-duty troops used the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), once known as food stamps, in 2013.
"One of the challenges has been that there is a lack of data on the issue. There hasn't been a lot of official data gathered by DoD," Protas said. "DoD has been reluctant to gather this data or has been asking the wrong questions. For example, in the Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation, they're just looking at how many military families actually participate in SNAP. But they're not asking how many struggle and can't get the help they need."
Last year, Office of Budget and Management officials objected to the measure when it was included in the House version of the defense bill, saying that service members "receive appropriate compensation" and "most junior enlisted members receive pay that is between the 95th and 99th percentiles relative to their private-sector peers."
Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said the issue is more important than ever, given the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic on military families.
"This is something we have the power to change. We have already enacted many programs during COVID that have helped prevent Americans from going hungry," Davis said. "This is all about kids, and military kids should not have barriers to access food."
"We have people serving in the military who are not getting fed," he said. "Our job is to make sure they have food on their tables so they can do their duty and their mission. As an ex-military person, I was never hungry because I was by myself. But these people with a family, the members of the family, they need the food."
The process for negotiating the House and Senate versions of the defense bill has yet to begin, with neither chamber naming the members who will serve on the conference committee. The measures are expected to come up after the November election. The conference already is expected to be contentious, as both versions contain provisions to rename military bases that honor Confederate officers. President Donald Trump has said he would veto any bill that contained such a measure.