House leaders are pushing military leaders to make eligibility and enrollment in the Defense Department’s new financial assistance program as generous as possible, saying that is needed to “address food and financial insecurity among servicemembers.”

In a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the group urged military leaders to move quickly on implementing the new Basic Needs Allowance and to automatically grant the financial help to all eligible families unless they specifically opt out of the program.

They also pushed for the department to exclude housing stipends in their calculations for program eligibility in order to benefit “as many service members as possible.”

On Monday, military leaders unveiled their budget plans for fiscal 2023, including the new Basic Needs Allowance authorized by Congress last year. Comptroller Michael McCord hailed the program as a way to help “the most vulnerable portion of our force to address economic insecurity,” but he offered few specifics on how the new benefit will be distributed.

Under guidelines approved by Congress last year, the new financial aid is targeted at military families whose household incomes are less than 130% of the federal poverty guidelines.

For a family of three, that equates to about $30,000 this year. For a family of four, it’s about $36,000.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that about 10,000 service members — mostly junior enlisted troops — would qualify for the new benefit, receiving an average monthly payout of about $400.

However, the exact total depends on how DoD officials construct program rules and regulations.

Military planners in coming months are expected to decide which military benefits and compensation should be included in troops’ income totals. Things like combat pay, re-enlistment bonuses, food stipends and housing benefits could all be added to military basic pay to push troops’ total income into a higher level, making them ineligible for the new benefit.

The lawmakers who wrote to Austin this week — a group that includes House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash.; the committee’s personnel chairwoman, Jackie Speier, D-Calif.; and House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott, D-Ga. — urged officials “to exempt as much of the [housing stipends] as possible” in their rules.

The group also pushed for military planners to certify eligibility for the allowance once a year in order to simplify the application process for families and commanders, and to make the program an “opt-out” benefit rather than one troops have to apply for, in an effort to get the money to as many individuals as possible.

“We look forward to working with the department to ensure that no one who serves our country has to worry about putting food on their table,” the group wrote.

Service officials are expected to release additional details about the new Basic Needs Allowance in the coming months. The fiscal 2023 budget isn’t expected to be finalized until this fall, and the new benefit wouldn’t begin to be distributed until sometime in calendar 2023 at the earliest.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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