Washington The disappointing specter of U.S. military personnel on food stamps has been with us for many years, and now we have the Department of Defense and the General Accounting Office disagreeing on the numbers by a wide margin.
The DoD claims that it would cost an astounding $40 billion in military pay raises to eliminate the problem, but this is based upon military families with nine to 12 children. Clearly, something is wrong when figures differ and when a figure to remedy the situation is predicated upon such an unusually high family size. It's time for the DoD and the GAO to bring in outside accounting assistance.
A 1995 DoD study found that some 11,900 junior enlisted members received food stamps. This total makes up about 0.8 percent of the 1.5 million members of the United States military. Ken Bacon, a spokesman for the Pentagon said, "Pay is not high for the people entering into the force. If you're a young soldier ... and have a large family, you could ... qualify for food stamps. This has been true for a long period of time. It's not something that's just become true in the last year or so."
Secretary of Defense William Cohen announced on April 30 of this year that according to the Department of Defense's last survey, only about 6,300 active duty service members are receiving food stamps. Cohen stated, "We'd like to see a situation where no service members are on food stamps, but we also want to make sure that any benefit that is available to our citizens is also available to our service members."
Defense officials are quick to point out that the majority of servicemen and servicewomen receiving food stamps also have larger than average families and that about 60 percent were living on base. An official at the Department of Defense said that the number of enlisted men and women receiving food stamps has probably declined due to significant increases in military base pay.
Meanwhile, a GAO report released in March found that "about 22 percent (of military personnel) reported that it was tough to make ends meet or that they were in over their head. Many enlisted personnel seem to have little financial cushion more than half reported having less than $1,000 in savings. A small portion of the enlisted force reported that they had received assistance from government programs such as Women, Infants and Children; Food Stamps; and Medicaid" during the past 12 months.
The GAO report went on to detail the amount of debt held by officers and enlisted men and women. It found that over one-fourth of the officers and nearly one-fifth of enlisted personnel "reported unsecured debts exceeding $10,000."
The report also found that about 10 percent of the enlisted force "reported receiving assistance through the Women, Infants and Children program," and that 1.2 percent of military personnel receive food stamps. That means that the GAO report shows 50 percent more military personnel are on food stamps than the DoD reported. The report was based on the preliminary results of the Department of Defense's 1999 Survey of Active Duty Members.
When confronted with the conflicting reports, an official at the Department of Defense stated that the DoD collected their information through a "data match of Social Security numbers with state food stamp rolls" and found that "less than 0.5 percent" of active duty service personnel were receiving food stamps. He went on to cite the confusing nature of the GAO survey used to gather the information.