Low-income military families are now one step closer to receiving a new allowance to help them make ends meet and address food insecurity. But under Defense Department guidelines, it’s not clear if the Basic Needs Allowance will help as many families as lawyers and lawmakers had hoped.
The Department of the Air Force ran the numbers to see how many Airmen and Wardens were eligible for the extra money and found that the answer was only 36.
The Basic Needs Allowance, a safety net for needy military families, was mandated in the defense bill passed in December 2021. Defense officials recently issued their guidance on how to implement the new benefit, which can be paid from January 1.
Officials in the military branches, including the Coast Guard, develop their policies based on instructions from the Department of Defense. They will proactively screen service members for possible eligibility and then notify them with information on how to apply. Service members must voluntarily apply for the additional money.
Service leaders are at various stages of developing their implementation policies, and some have begun reviewing them, according to service officials.
The Army Training and Doctrine Command, for example, has begun screening Soldiers participating in Advanced Individual Training. Soldiers already assigned to their permanent posts will be reviewed after Army leadership is approved, Army spokeswoman Heather J. Hagan said.
The Air Force has spokeswoman Tech Sgt. Deana M. Heitzman. Those aviators and guards will be notified starting this month, she said. You must apply for and provide the necessary documentation to prove household income to determine eligibility.
The Air Force will continue to search each month for Airmen and guardians who may be eligible for the allowance. “We anticipate that eligible service members will include younger members with larger families,” she said. The Air Force’s draft implementation guideline is “prior to decision” and not available for release, she said.
Is housing benefit counted as income?
A major bone of contention surrounding the Basic Needs Allowance was whether soldiers’ housing allowances would be excluded from income entitlement calculations. Defense officials have agreed to exclude housing benefits for some soldiers in total income calculations — but only in high-cost-of-living areas, as determined by defense officials.
Advocates have long pushed for housing benefit to be excluded from entitlement calculations so more families are eligible, but lawmakers left that decision to the Department of Defense.
Based on how the Department of Defense determines the high-cost areas where soldiers are eligible for the federal living allowance known as CONUS COLA, few soldiers appear to be able to foreclose their housing allowance, which would therefore increase their income increase and make them ineligible.
For CONUS COLA, a high cost of living area is defined as any geographic area where the cost of living exceeds the average cost of living in the continental US by 8% or more in any fiscal year.
In 2022, the Ministry of Defense has designated 26 high-cost areas for the CONUS COLA. The eligible military housing areas are San Francisco; Boulder, Colorado; New York City; and Long Island and Staten Island, New York. The other 21 areas, counties in Oregon, Virginia, and West Virginia, have few service members.
There are similarities in the definition of high costs in the approval for both grants, but information on whether the same criteria are used for the basic needs grant was not available. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defense said that some decisions and approvals are still pending in this regard.
“Congress gave the DoD a fair amount of leeway to determine where and how much BAH would be excluded in determining eligibility for Basic Needs Assistance,” said Eileen Huck, senior deputy director for government relations at the National Military Family Association.
“It’s a lot closer than we hoped,” she said. “We’ve spent the last year encouraging the DoD to make that exclusion as wide as possible, especially given that given current rates of inflation, one could argue that almost every place in the United States currently has a high cost of living area.” .
“I would be really concerned if [the DoD instruction] is interpreted in such a way that virtually no military family could qualify for it. It’s really disappointing.”
“Feed our paycheck to the pumps”: Troops, families have to deal with inflation
One concern is what happens to families who make permanent station changes, particularly from a designated high-cost area to one that isn’t, said Shannon Razsadin, president of the Military Family Advisory Network. The nonprofit organization has conducted research into issues affecting military families and has hosted free food distribution events for military and veterans’ families to help fight hunger.
“We know it’s during relocations, the transition points, when families tend to struggle and find themselves at risk of food insecurity,” she said. “While we are encouraged that there is movement here, we have questions. We’re excited to see how this will translate to the families that really need it.
“How can we make it easier for families to access the support they need? Families are having a hard time right now. The economy certainly doesn’t help with that,” she said.
“I am confident that this will be implemented in a meaningful way.”
Eligible persons for the Basic Needs Assistance starting January 1 are active duty members with dependents whose gross household income and household size put them below 130% of the federal poverty guidelines for their geographic location. These guidelines are set by the Department of Health and Human Services. Service members must have completed at least initial training.
The household in the DoD directive is defined as the active-duty member and all dependents of that member who are registered in the reporting system for eligibility to enroll in defense, regardless of the location of those dependents. This means that a service member whose dependents do not currently live in the same location, possibly on an unaccompanied trip or in a case where the family has chosen to remain in the previous location for various reasons, could still be eligible.
Here is an example provided by the Department of Defense of calculating the Basic Needs Allowance for a hypothetical military member. The service member is stationed in Ohio:
BASIC NEEDS ALLOWANCE, EXAMPLE
Household size: 5
$32,470 x 1.3 (130% of federal poverty guideline) = $42,211
$42,211 – $39,947 = $2,264
$2,264 divided by 12 months = $189 per month Basic Needs Assistance
Source: Department of Defense
♦ Gross Household Income used to determine eligibility for the grant includes all income from all sources for each household member, including government food assistance programs, unless otherwise noted.
♦ Gross income excludes: earned income of a dependent who does not file a tax return; non-taxable grants and scholarships for post-secondary students; Federal and state reimbursements for expenses such as incidental expenses, medical or dependent care, provided they do not exceed actual expenses; all military travel and transportation allowances and entitlements; Income tax refunds and insurance settlements.
As mentioned above, it excludes housing benefit in high-cost areas determined by DoD officials.
♦ The federal poverty guidelines are based on three geographic locations: the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia; Hawaii and Alaska. If a service member moves from one of these general locations to another, the basic needs allowance must be recalculated.
♦ If the service member is deployed outside of the United States, service officials will make eligibility and payment calculations using the federal poverty guidelines for the contiguous 48 states and the District of Columbia.
♦ The Monthly Basic Needs Allowance is effective on the date the service member’s application, including the Coast Guard, is determined to be eligible. Service officers must have procedures in place to determine eligibility and the amount of the allowance within 30 calendar days of receiving an application.
♦ Military officials must ensure that the eligible military member is paid the monthly basic needs allowance within 30 calendar days of the application being approved.
♦ Implementation will take time and it is unclear whether there will be provisions for retrospective payments if procedures are not in place to certify applications before 1 January. In the meantime, military members who believe they may be eligible for the Basic Needs Allowance can begin collecting supporting documents to submit with their application. This includes tax returns, vacation and income statements (LES), civilian payslips, W-2s, and any other documents that can be used to verify gross household income.
♦ The basic needs allowance is taxable.
♦ Receipt of Basic Needs Assistance may limit a family’s eligibility for certain government assistance programs, such as B. subsidized school feeding programs; the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program; family allowance; programs to support low-income utility companies; day care programs; and other income-based assistance programs.
♦ Service members may receive assistance with the application process from DoD financial advisors, payroll services, human resources services, and community or family support services, but these agencies cannot issue a final certification of the allowance. Eligibility and estimate of payments are not binding or final until confirmed by the secretary of the relevant military department in accordance with Department of Defense directions.
♦ Military officials must develop a process for service members to apply for this basic needs allowance if they believe they are eligible but have not been notified after a review.
♦ Military members receiving Basic Needs Allowance must report any changes in income or household size to the appropriate certifying officer.
♦ Military members receiving the Basic Needs Allowance must submit an updated, signed application along with supporting documentation each year.