Support for commissaries among Pentagon steps to help struggling military families

The Department of Defense is boosting basic housing pay, funding commissaries and taking other steps to help struggling enlisted families in this era of inflation — steps that family advocates say are timely and much-needed.

Those steps include “fully funding” military base commissaries to “cut prices at the register, with (the) goal of achieving at least a 25% savings on grocery bills compared to the local marketplace,” the Pentagon said.

Active-duty personnel and military retirees are allowed to use military commissaries, which offer discounted groceries. Food prices have risen more than 11% in the past year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released earlier in September.

Earlier this year, the National Military Family Association found that 46% of more than 2,200 surveyed teenagers in military families had experienced some level of food insecurity in the prior 30 days, said David Treacher, deputy director of government relations with the National Military Family Association.

“That’s a really high rate of food insecurity,” Treacher said Monday.

“Commissaries are one of the best benefits we are able to offer our service members and their families, and we are encouraging them to take advantage of the savings that we can provide,” Under Secretary of Defense Gilbert Cisneros Jr. said in a press briefing.

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The department said it will also examine basic housing allowance payments in 28 communities that have seen an average rent increase of more than 20%. Communities around Wright-Patterson Air Force Base were not included on that list.

Greene County Commissioner Rick Perales, a former Air Force officer, said these steps should pay “major dividends.”

“No matter what kind of technology and weapon systems we develop, we need loyal, dedicated and focused women and men in uniform to use that technology and weapon systems effectively to defeat our adversaries,” Perales said. “I commend our military leaders for taking these necessary and long overdue steps to ensure our troops and their families are properly cared for. "

The Pentagon said it will also pay eligible service members a Basic Needs Allowance starting January 2023. That’s supplemental allowance for military members with dependents who apply and qualify based on having a gross household income below 130% of the federal poverty level.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also ordered an increase in the Dislocation Allowance (DLA) for E-1 to E-6 service members, to help offset personal expenses for permanent change of station moves, effective next month. DLA payments for all service members will be paid automatically a month before their move date to help with out-of-pocket expenses, the DOD said.

And President Biden’s budget includes a 4.6% pay increase for the military starting January 1, 2023, the DOD noted.

Further, the Pentagon ordered the speeding of seven additional occupational licensure interstate compacts with organizations representing multiple professions, to help spouses who must transfer professional licenses or credentials to new states with each move.

The Labor Department reported earlier this month that consumer prices rose by 0.1% in August from July — meaning they are 8.3% above the year-earlier level.

Treacher, of the National Military Family Association, acknowledges that all American families are feeling economic pressures these days, particularly when it comes to grocery and energy costs, and a lack of affordable child care.

But some military families are really struggling, he said.

“If they can’t get affordable child care, it’s difficult to continue to serve,” Treacher said.

He said he appreciates that the Department of Defense’s recent moves, and he recognize that the government sometimes does not move quickly. The areas the DOD is addressing are exactly the areas where military families are really “feeling the pinch,” he said.

Dual incomes are increasingly the norm for all American families, and it’s no different for military families, Treacher said. But the unemployment rate for military spouses has been around 22% for about a decade, he said, citing DOD data.

Active-duty families face special pressures. Military-mandated family moves to new duty stations involve a certain amount of upheaval, forcing spouses to meet new licensing requirements in new states and make homes in new communities. Sometimes, the moves create gaps in employment resumes that create their own challenges, he said.

He advocated passage of the federal Military Spouse Hiring Act, a bill that would create a new tax credit to incentivize businesses to hire military spouses. He is cautiously optimistic that passage before the end of this Congress is possible.

The issue has been on Ohio’s radar for a long time, Gov. Mike DeWine’s office said Monday.

“Ohio has led the nation in legislation supporting employment for military spouses,” a statement from DeWine’s office said. “In fact, the governor has signed into law priority Department of Defense initiatives, including Interstate compacts for Physical Therapy (SB 5), Interstate Compact for Occupational Therapy (SB 7), Interstate Compact for Psychology licensure (SB 2), Interstate Nurse Compact (SB 3) and Interstate Compact for Audiology/Speech-Language Pathology (HB 252).

“These are all key focus areas for the Department of Defense and the Air Force. And this progress has been specifically recognized by the Office of the Secretary of Defense,” the governor’s office said.

Ohio is one of 10 states rated as “fully compliant” on reciprocity initiatives by the Air Force, the office said.

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