As military-civilian wage gap widens, soldiers' families turn to food stamps

June 12, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Like other airmen at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, 21-year-old Jason Edwards worries about tensions faraway in North Korea that could erupt into fighting and involve him.

But he has more immediate concerns as well. He is worried about how to feed his wife, Beth, 22, and their two small children on his total pay and allowances of $1,330 a month. In desperation, the Edwardses began drawing $228 a month in food stamps last month to get by.

"It's a very tight squeeze for us," Mrs. Edwards said. "We haven't bought any steaks since we've been here, and whenever I want to cook something with ham, I substitute Spam for it."

In a trend that has senior Pentagon officials deeply troubled, an increasing number of military families are turning to food stamps make ends meet. Three-quarters of America's enlisted forces earn less than $30,000 a year, and the gap between civilian and military wages is growing.

To be sure, no one ever joined the military to get rich. But neither did they expect to have to go on welfare.

Military officials worry that a growing demand for food stamps and other government assistance may signal larger personnel problems in a culture that preaches self-reliance and self-discipline.

The overall number of troops on food stamps is very small and difficult to measure because the government does not track military recipients.

About 3 percent of the 1.7 million service members qualify for food stamps and 1 percent, or about 17,000 personnel, receive them monthly, according to a 1992 study by the Defense and Agriculture departments. The Agriculture Department manages the food stamp program.

The Defense Department said that the total value of food stamps redeemed at military commissaries increased to $27.4 million last year from $24.5 million in 1992, including retired military recipients.

Food donation centers are bustling at bases from Hawaii to Florida. And in Georgia's Liberty County, which serves Fort Stewart, 30 percent of the 2,400 households receiving food stamps each month are military families.

Top military officials voice concern that Pentagon budget cuts -- and quality-of-life issues such as pay could impair both morale and retention of service personnel. The Clinton administration tried to freeze military salaries this year and increase them only by 1.6 percent for next year.

Congress instead approved a 2.2 percent increase for this year and will probably approve a 2.6 percent raise for next year, but neither raise will keep pace with inflation, which is about 3 percent.

"We cannot expect service members to lay their lives on the line when back home their families have to rely on food stamps to make ends meet," said Adm. William Owens, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Most service members on food stamps are sergeants or below in the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force and petty officers or below in the Navy. The families usually have more than two children, and the spouse does not work. Very few officers qualify for food stamps.

In a culture that promotes a fierce ethic of taking care of one's own, soldiers' reluctant embrace of food stamps and other financial assistance has wounded military leaders.

"We've always told our soldiers that we'll provide for them a quality of life that's at least equal to the civilians for whom they serve," Sgt. Maj. Richard Kidd, the sergeant major of the Army, the senior enlisted soldier, said in an interview. "It's getting tough to do that now."

For most people who join the armed forces, the lure is not money but adventure, education and patriotism. The military also offers good medical and commissary benefits.

But since 1982, the gap between civilian and military wages has widened to 13 percent, and is projected to be near 20 percent by the end of the decade. The military wages include housing and other allowances.

Meanwhile, the rising pace of deployments abroad is placing greater strains on the shrinking number of service members and their families.

"There's only so long you can ask them to do more without recognizing it before people just start to leave," said Sydney Hickey, associate director of government relations for the National Military Family Association in Alexandria, Va.

In addition, more young people than ever are entering the military with spouses and children -- and added financial burdens.

Between 70 percent to 80 percent of all enlisted men and women earn less than $30,000 a year, including housing and food allowances, according to a study by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Among those, 45 percent of the Army and 46 percent of the

Marine Corps earn less than $20,000 a year. McCain coined a new term for what he calls these people: "the new military poor."

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