Elizabeth Armstrong is an OK Policy Intern and former military spouse. She is pursuing a Master’s degree in Geography at Oklahoma State University where she also works as a Graduate Research Assistant. Her free time is spent playing with her daughter.
Despite the stigma often attached to food assistance, a large majority of the recipients are not lazy or jobless. According to a report by Feeding America, approximately 654,640 Oklahomans are food insecure. They include some of the hardest-working individuals in this nation, including military service members willing to die for our country.
Did you know that about 1 out of every 4 active duty military families receive SNAP (food stamp) assistance? With 21,913 active duty military currently in Oklahoma, that amounts to about 5,000 active service members relying on SNAP to feed their families. In addition, approximately 26,300 Oklahoma veterans received SNAP assistance in 2014, an increase of 1,700 recipients from 2013. Together, military families (those with at least one service member or veteran) make up approximately 20 percent of all food insecure families served by the Feeding America Network.
So why do so many members of our military need food assistance? Military families do receive benefits such as health insurance and a basic housing allowance to help compensate for unannounced moving requirements, limited work for military spouses, expensive housing, high child care costs, uniform changes, etc. However, food insecurity is still a reality for many military families due to low pay for many service members. An enlisted soldier at the bottom of the pay scale (rank E-1) makes just $1,546/month. Rising to rank E-4, which typically takes at least 2 years of service, can increase pay to between $2,019.60 to $2,451.60 per month. To put this pay scale into perspective, that’s still below the gross monthly income limit to qualify for SNAP with a family of four ($2,628). This means that, due to low pay, many military families systemically qualify for food subsidies.
In order to mitigate a portion of military reliance on SNAP, the federal government developed supplemental income programs specifically for military families, such as the Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance (FSSA) program. This was designed to end SNAP participation by military families by providing cash assistance up to $1,100 or 130 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. However, very few military families qualify for FSSA because the program also counts basic housing assistance subsidies as “income,” something that is not done for the civilian population.
The military is in many ways a supportive community environment; unfortunately, that has not been matched by our nation’s public financial and political support. Instead of increasing pay for military personnel, military families continue to rely on over $100 million in SNAP benefits annually. Although $598.5 billion of the discretionary budget is dedicated to military spending, the allocation of those funds leave little room for military pay increases, leaving the task of securing supplemental income to an already stressed military family. The numbers mentioned in this article only include a portion of the eligible population and do not include the thousands of homeless veterans in need of long-term assistance. If we continue to refuse to educate our community on the reality of FSSA, ignore veteran employment concerns, and under-pay our active military service members, the number of military families needing food assistance can only be expected to rise.