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Cohen Addresses Food Stamp Housing-Income Equity

By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 20, 2000 – Secretary of Defense William Cohen proposes to solve a long-standing housing allowance "equity issue" in a way that probably could make more military families eligible for food stamps.

"This issue is about equity for our people. I support military men and women receiving every federal benefit to which they are entitled," Cohen said in a written statement April 19. He pledged to work with Agriculture Department leaders to "amend current rules so as to exclude the cash housing allowance paid to our people living off base from the computation for eligibility.

"This will provide the equity in pay and benefits we must maintain, while retaining the food stamp benefit for those who truly need it," Cohen wrote. "We have made great progress in quality of life issues for our military men and women -- pay increases, pay table reform, restoration of the 20-year retirement, improvements in health care, and more generous allowances for off-base housing. We can do no less.

"I think this proposed change to the eligibility procedures for food stamps is one more way that we can further improve that quality of life, and I will work vigorously for its implementation."

Current food stamp rules count monthly cash housing allowances as income but not the value of government quarters. Military members who live off base appear to have larger incomes than their peers who live on base. Ironically, the allowance members forfeit to live in base housing covers their costs in full while a cash allowance by law is supposed to cover only 85 percent of off-base housing costs -- but actually cover only 81 percent on average, according to DoD statistics.

In January, Cohen proposed raising housing allowances to eliminate members' out-of-pocket expenses within five years. Unless food stamp income rules change, however, the current inequity would continue. Families living off base would receive a larger allowance, but then report an even higher disqualifying income.

Bernard Rostker, President Clinton's nominee to serve as the next undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, recently proposed before Congress that the fairness issue could be solved by declaring the value of base housing as income in determining food stamp eligibility. This would reduce the number of military families on food stamps by disqualifying many living in base housing.

The military doesn't have statistics on members receiving food stamps, but DoD officials have estimated that less than 1 percent of service members qualify, and those that do generally have larger-than-average families, Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said at an April 18 press conference. He couldn't say how many military families might be affected by Cohen's proposed food stamp change, but noted roughly 60 percent of those receiving stamps live in base housing.

Bacon demonstrated the food stamp issue by using the example of a married serviceman in pay grade E-5 with six years' service and three children. If this person lived on base, he'd get base housing but no housing allowance, his pay and a monthly $227.40 subsistence allowance. He would receive $1,919.10 a month in cash -- and qualify for food stamps, Bacon said.

The same person, if living off base, would receive pay, subsistence and a monthly $530 cash housing allowance -- and have a disqualifying income of $2,449.10.

Bacon went on to point out there are many other benefits to living in government quarters. "The person [living off base] may live far away from the base, far away from the unit day-care center, far away from the commissary, far away from the base schools, and may have a substantial commute," he said. "The person living on base faces none of those additional costs."

Some members of Congress have proposed a monthly allowance for service members who are eligible for food stamps. DoD consider the suggestion unfeasible and unfair, Bacon said during the briefing.

Bacon said DoD is trying to lessen the impact of food stamps on service members through measures that benefit all, such as this year's 4.8 percent pay raise and Cohen's proposed housing allowance increases.

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