Washington Hoping to turn around an embarrassing problem, the Pentagon proposed Friday giving grocery store debit cards to low-income troops, so they would no longer have to use food stamps.
Secretary of Defense William Cohen said the plan to subsidize military members' food purchases with an in-house Department of Defense program would cost the Pentagon $31 million a year. It also would help some people who didn't qualify under the traditional Agriculture Department food stamp program.
The idea must be approved by Congress and could begin within a year after such approval, officials said.
"This will result in families being able to come off the rolls of food stamps," Cohen said at a news conference with visiting Swiss President Adolf Ogi. "This new plan is going to improve the well-being of our junior members in the armed forces."
In 1998, approximately 6,300 U.S. troops were on food stamps. That was greatly reduced from the 12,000 who got them in 1995 and represents less than 1 percent of the 1.4 million men and women in uniform.
Getting military pay raises and improving health and other benefits has been a focus of recent budgets as the military seeks to stem the tide of service members who have been leaving for jobs in the hot civilian economy.
Under a pay raise already approved, base salary going into effect in January for a sergeant with six years in the service will be $1,691 a month. Pentagon officials note that doesn't go far for young military families with several children.
Under the plan announced by Cohen, the Department of Defense would set up its own subsistence program, with eligible troops being given electronic debit cards to use at base commissaries. Other arrangements would be made for troops in remote areas not served by military commissaries.
The cards would contain a fixed monthly value based upon the serviceman or woman's pay level and family size. Eligibility guidelines would generally follow the Department of Agriculture food stamp guidelines with "a few important exceptions," the Pentagon said in a statement.
First, the program would be handled on military installations, making it more convenient than going to state offices that administer the food stamp program, the Pentagon said.
Second, the program will include troops who live off base and also need help but have been ineligible because their off-base housing allowance was counted as income. The housing allowance will not be part of the calculation under the military plan. Officials said they were unsure how many more troops this would add to assistance rolls above the 6,300 now getting food stamps.
"The subsistence program is the right thing to do for our men and women in uniform," Cohen said. "It addresses inequities in current programs and continues the steps started last year with ... pay raises" and improvement in other military benefits.