A growing number of working people use food stamps to help make ends meet. Often they work in retail, food and service industry jobs, where pay is traditionally low. But there’s another group of working people turning to food stamps that might surprise you: active-duty military personnel and their families.
What do we know about food stamp use in the military?
Every year the Department of Agriculture publishes data about where food stamp benefits (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) are being spent. The categories range from grocery stores and super stores to convenience stores and farmers markets. Also on the list, surprisingly, are military commissaries — those stores on military bases that sell groceries just above cost to active duty and retired military personnel and their families, as well as those in the reserves and National Guard.
In 2014 more than $84 million-worth of food stamp benefits were spent at military commissaries. That’s just a fraction of a percent of all the food stamps spent in the U.S. last year. But the number is sobering when you think of who is doing this spending — people who served or are currently serving our country and are still having trouble making ends meet.
Do we know how many active-duty military personnel are on food stamps?
The numbers are hard to come by. Neither the military nor the USDA tally those numbers, but recently the USDA estimated that between 2,000 and 22,000 active-duty military members
used food stamps in 2012, the latest data available. (There’s an interesting explanation of how those vastly divergent numbers are arrived at in this PDF, a report from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.) These estimates suggest that between 1 percent and 2 percent of active-duty military members used food stamps in 2012.
What about veterans?
The USDA estimates that in 2012, more than 1.5 million veterans used food stamps, or about 7 percent of all veterans.
How low does your income have to be to qualify for food stamps?
Pretty low — though it depends on how big your household is. A single person has to be grossing less than $15,180 a year. For a family of four, the annual income threshold is $31,008.
So what is military pay these days?
If you are a very junior member of the military on active duty, your annual base pay can be less than $19,000. Add in housing and food allowances and it can go up to the high $30,000s. But if you've got a big family, if your spouse isn't working (which, if you're moving around from base to base or if one parent is overseas can often be the case), that money may not go too far. You might very well qualify for food stamps, or at least find yourself struggling to get by.
What kinds of financial challenges face military families?
Jennifer Daelyn grew up in a military family and now runs the Hand Up Youth Food Pantry near Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base north of San Diego. When she tells people that she helps a lot of active-duty military families, “often people are really surprised that it's even needed,” she says. “They're like ‘they don't need that — that doesn’t really happen.' But it does.”
Daelyn says she hears common concerns from the military families she serves. “They might have things set up if everything is going as planned, but if unplanned costs arise — someone needed to get new tires for their car, or had an unexpected pregnancy, it's difficult to handle considering the financial situation that they're in.”
And then there’s the added challenge that military families are moved around a lot. “It can be hard to maintain family and social support networks,” Daelyn says. “People who are in different states than their parents, than the kids’ grandparent that was providing support for them emotionally, financially, just with coping.”
Does it matter if military personnel use food stamps?
You could look at the issue of military personnel on food stamps as academic — it’s all government money after all. Does it matter if lower-paid military members are getting part of their paychecks supplemented through one taxpayer-funded program, SNAP, rather than subsisting on their taxpayer-funded paychecks alone?
Others argue it’s just not right that wages for some of those serving in the military haven't kept up with inflation.