The superiority of America’s military depends on maintaining a motivated and high-performing fighting force. That’s obvious, you might think. It certainly ought to be. Yet it’s hard to square with a remarkable fact: Large numbers of active-duty troops are struggling to feed their families.

The Pentagon doesn’t collect comprehensive data on food insecurity, but recent surveys of military personnel suggest the problem is persistent – and most likely growing. A 2019 survey of 7,800 members of military families found that 12.5 percent experienced food insecurity as defined by the federal government, compared to 10.5 percent of all U.S. households; in a smaller sample of military families taken this year, the number increased to more than 20 percent. A separate U.S. Army study of nearly 6,000 active-duty soldiers concluded that 33 percent are “marginally” insecure – meaning that they faced at least some uncertainty about whether they could afford to buy food – compared with 17.9 percent of the general population.

How can this be? Junior enlisted troops earn more, on average, than civilians with comparable education, but they marry and have children at a younger age. They get moved around a lot, so their spouses find it harder to hold down a job. The pre-pandemic unemployment rate for military spouses was more than six times the national average; of those employed at the start of the crisis, 42 percent lost their jobs. And members of the military face restrictions on working second jobs to supplement their incomes.

That active-duty service members struggle to meet their families’ basic needs is shameful in its own right. It also endangers the country’s security. It makes troops more susceptible to anxiety and depression, harming military readiness and increasing attrition, and it certainly doesn’t help the services’ efforts to step up recruitment. Congress, the Biden administration and the Pentagon’s military and civilian leaders need to address the problem.

A good start would be to remove obstacles preventing military families from getting federal assistance. Relatively few military families are currently enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – not because very few need the support, but because many fail to apply, and because the military’s basic allowance for housing is counted as income and lifts some families living off-base above the relevant threshold. Basic allowance for housing is meant to defray a specific additional cost and shouldn’t be scored that way. The military should alert service members to their eligibility for SNAP support, and help them get it.

Better, raise pay so that low-income service members don’t need SNAP support in the first place. The Senate Armed Services Committee recently voted to pay a basic needs allowance, on top of ordinary pay. This would boost the incomes of as many as 10,200 military households. The plan needs further work – it would expire in 2027, for one, and involves some needless complexities – but Congress should build on this idea and take it forward.

America’s 1.3 million active-duty troops shoulder the heavy burden of protecting their fellow citizens. Basic economic security for them and their families is the very least the country owes in return.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.