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Defense Officials Announce Plan to Replace Food Stamps

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

WASHINGTON, July 28, 2000 – Service members who qualify for food stamps -- and some who don't -- may soon get debit cards to use in commissaries, DoD officials announced July 28.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen told reporters at the Pentagon that the DoD-issued cards would be credited with a fixed monthly value based on the user's rank and family size. The new plan would be optional for members and cost the department $31.5 million per year. Members can't participate in both programs.

Cohen called the cards necessary because Agriculture Department food stamp rules create an inequity between service members who live on base and those who live off. Under current food stamp eligibility guidelines, the value of base family housing isn't counted as income, but housing allowances for those who live off base are. All other things being equal, then, families living on base appear to be needier than those living off base.

The debit cards would end the inequity by not counting housing allowances as income, DoD officials said. This probably means more service members would receive cards than currently receive food stamps -- but it's fair, they said.

Cohen also said the proposed debit card program would be more convenient because it would be administered by installations and members wouldn't have to travel to state food stamp offices. The cards would give members up to 30 percent more buying power because of commissaries' lower prices, he suggested.

Officials are adding provisions for cash allowances for remotely located service members who do not have ready access to a commissary.

Defense officials have said a cash allowance to members who qualify for food stamps wouldn't work because that could create situations where lower-ranking individuals are paid more than their superiors.

"We tried also to take into account that our pay scales depend upon rank, responsibility (and) years of service, and we want to keep that basic core of our compensation schedules. This allows the military to have control (of the pay scales) and address the needs of families who need assistance," Cohen said of the card proposal.

The plan needs congressional approval. Cohen said the idea already has support from members of the House and Senate armed services committees.

Navy Capt. Elliott Bloxom, DoD's director of compensation, said the plan will likely be covered in the fiscal 2002 budget request and take effect Oct. 1, 2001.

The military doesn't keep statistics on members receiving food stamps, but DoD officials have estimated that about 6,300 households participate. That's less than one-half percent of the force, they said, and the members in question generally have larger-than-average families.

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