The Food-Stamp G.I.?

  • Sure as a soldier squeezing his M-16 trigger knows a burst of bullets will follow, politicians know that deploring "G.I.s on food stamps" will trigger a burst of applause. Senator John McCain has repeatedly called it a "national disgrace." The presidential front runners have picked up the refrain. Both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush have decried the scourge of food stamps for the military and pledged to boost soldiers' pay to end it. "We must eliminate the need for any active-duty families to be eligible for food stamps," Gore declares. "It has to stop, and I will stop it."

    But beyond its value as a crowd pleaser, the issue is less of a crisis than it may seem during an overheated political rally. Despite cries that the Clinton Administration has neglected America's men and women in uniform, the number of troops on food stamps is declining. In 1991, 19,400 troops received food stamps. By 1995 the number was 11,900, and by 1998 only 6,300 of the 1.4 million Americans in uniform were on food stamps. Even after accounting for the shrinking military, the number of troops receiving such aid has slid from 0.9% to 0.45% over the past decade. (About 8% of Americans are on food stamps.) The Pentagon predicts that scheduled pay increases for troops will by 2005 trim the total military personnel on food stamps to 4,000.

    What pushes that small number of troops onto food stamps is a combination of little money and big families. Consider military pay. Certainly no one enlists for the dough. A raw recruit earns $930 a month, and even a sergeant with 10 years in uniform is paid less than $22,000 a year. Nearly half the members of the Army and Marine Corps, along with 26% of Navy and 18% of Air Force personnel, make less than $20,000. And this is where family size becomes key. Close to 60% of military families eligible for food stamps have six members or more. The Pentagon has no desire to encourage bigger families by linking pay to procreation. "It's regrettable that people in the military do qualify for food stamps," Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon says, "but it's more a function of their family size than of military pay."

    The food-stamp issue also turns on simple accounting. Soldiers who live off base receive extra compensation to help defray their housing costs. But the Department of Agriculture, which runs the food-stamp program, counts that off-base allowance as income. Troops who live on a military installation and thus don't get that housing allowance are several thousand dollars a year poorer on paper than their compatriots who live off base. It's little wonder then that 60% of the troops who are eligible for food stamps live in military housing, though only a third of the force lives in government quarters.

    Attempts to tackle the food-stamp issue have backfired. Last month Bernard Rostker, the Pentagon's new personnel chief, ignited a firestorm when he proposed cutting in half the number of soldiers on food stamps by counting their on-base housing as income. The proposal, not surprisingly, turned out to be a p.r. disaster. The Pentagon would have been cutting its food-stamp rolls not by boosting benefits but by a bookkeeping trick. Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered the scheme scrapped. Instead, Cohen is taking the opposite tack. He wants to stop counting the off-base housing allowance no longer calculated as part of a soldier's income. Doing that, Pentagon officials acknowledge, could double the number of soldiers on food stamps. Cohen says it is wrong for soldiers to be treated differently on the basis of where they live. Defense officials add that his move will give the Pentagon leverage in fighting for continued pay raises.

    On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are pushing various compensation packages to wean most, if not all, soldiers off food stamps. McCain has proposed the none too subtly named "Remove Service Members from Food Stamps Act of 2000." It would pay a $180 monthly allowance to food-stamp-eligible soldiers. "We must end the days of a 'food-stamp Army' once and for all," McCain says. "Our military personnel and their families deserve better."

    But such efforts have triggered grumbling inside the Pentagon. Some officers see the food-stamp issue as a mere symbol, a problem for which pols can come up with a "fix," declare victory and then desert the military force's deeper woes. "Food stamps are only a sound bite," says Joyce Raezer of the National Military Family Association, which fights to improve the lot of military families. "There are a lot more pressing issues." Housing, for example: there are 500,000 old and decrepit military housing units needing repair. McCain's plan to reduce the number of troops on food stamps would cost about $6 million annually. Giving military families and individual troops a decent place to live would cost $1 billion annually. Election year or not, that's no cheap applause line.