American service members and their families are going hungry and Congress needs to fix this. Almost 14 percent of our enlisted strength today is food insecure. These families struggle to afford to feed nutritious meals to their loved ones. To compare, a $15-an-hour minimum wage works out to $31,200 annually, assuming one works a full-time schedule. A junior enlisted military member in the E3 pay grade—meaning a fairly new member in the first few years of service—has a base pay of $29,220, or $14 per hour.
Many people will point out that this compensation does not include medical care, housing allowances and food stipends. Given that most military service members work more than 40 hours weekly, at high-risk jobs, and often deploy for months on end, a base pay that provides less money than one can make in fast food service is probably not the right answer for those who keep our country safe.
This issue needs to be a top concern as Congress prepares to mark up the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Our service members should not have to apply for extra-governmental programs or go to food banks. They should be paid a wage that enables them to feed their families. The problem worsened during the pandemic; one study indicated a 150 percent increase in marginal food insecurity among the US military in the past two-plus years.
American society continues to debate whether someone who works full time should be paid a living wage. The debate was further fueled by the October 2020 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report revealing that 70 percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants have full-time jobs. While the public debate has been focused on why large profitable corporations should pay their employees enough to avoid public assistance, we Americans should ask the same question on behalf of our troops: Should military members be paid a living wage so that they can avoid food banks and public assistance programs? The answer is an emphatic “Yes.”
Congress has taken some action to address this problem. The 2022 NDAA provided a new food allowance called the Military Family Basic Needs Allowance, or BNA. While this is helpful, all that Congress accomplished was to replace one source of public assistance with another. In the end, it does not pay our junior-ranking enlisted military members a living wage. Nor is it likely to solve the challenge of food insecurity; it has a technical flaw that counts off-post housing allowance as income, thereby disqualifying many of those who need the BNA. The same flaw exists with the SNAP program.
More importantly, this new allowance continues to mask the real problem: We are stuck in the 1970s by paying our junior enlisted service members as if they have been drafted as young people without families, rather than volunteers with families. Raising their pay grade will move the military further away from the 1970s era of low-cost, high-turnover labor. Additionally, the BNA continues to ask service members to “prove” they are eligible for the program, adding an extra burden and creating a costly bureaucracy to administer.
The coming weeks are important as Congress debates amendments to the annual NDAA. The combination of near-term high food inflation — with the longer-term reality of not paying our enlisted service members enough to get by — has created a major problem that must be solved.
Specifically, Congress needs to first fix the BNA and exclude the housing allowance from eligibility requirements. Next, with food inflation at 10.1 percent in May and rising, Congress must increase the military pay raise beyond the 4.6 percent proposed by the Defense Department (which passed in the June 8 mark-ups), and provide additional funding to cover the increased pay . As a last step — but perhaps the most important one — Congress should set up a commission to reform the military pay tables to bring them in line with the 21st century concept of fair pay and wages. Start the reform effort at the lowest end of the enlisted pay tables.
Waiting another year to solve this problem also will turn this into a military readiness problem; we already see personnel shortfalls because of insufficient recruiting. Congress must act now to send a strong and powerful message to military families, to America’s youth, and to our adversaries that our military members are our most important competitive warfighting advantage.
To recruit and retain service members, the American military should be a model employer. We should not subject the families of service members defending our country to the stigma of depending on government handouts. Slogans such as “Join the military and go on food stamps” are not what the American public expects — or what the military deserves.
Retired US Army Maj. Gen. John Ferraria nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a former director of program analysis and evaluation for the Army.