Little appetite for food stamps Military families fight civilian pay gap and growing needs

September 08, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For three grueling months of Army Ranger training, Sgt. Jason K. Conklin will learn to survive in all climates, dine on bugs, track an enemy for miles and kill swiftly and quietly.

But there is one mission the 28-year-old paratrooper refuses to accept: strolling into the local social services office with his wife and two children.

"I'm not going to walk in there and apply for food stamps," says Conklin, though he knows at least four other soldiers stationed with him at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., who accept the help. It's about pride, he said. "Personal pride mostly."

Conklin is among an estimated 25,000 military personnel whose wages are so meager compared to their family size that they qualify for food stamps and other federal assistance programs. Those numbers are increasing, say military advocacy groups and lawmakers, primarily because military pay lags 14 percent behind civilian salaries.

For the Conklins, the challenge is living on $1,750 per month. Although Conklin won't take advantage of food stamps, his wife, Tracey, stretches the budget by exchanging vouchers from the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program for milk, eggs, cereal, tuna and other staples.

"You'd be surprised how many people on WIC are in the military," said Tracey, who knows more than a dozen military families accepting the vouchers at Fort Bragg.

Army personnel used $11 million in food stamps and WIC vouchers at military commissaries in 1990, a figure which increased to $18.5 million by 1995. Military-wide statistics were not available.

Troubled by the prospect of soldiers on public assistance, members of Congress are pressing the Pentagon for a more accurate picture of service members who live at or below the poverty line. Lawmakers are also searching for solutions to a problem they fear is eroding morale and impeding efforts to retain experienced troops.

'A terrible injustice'

"I think it's a terrible injustice that people in uniform need food stamps to make ends meet," said Rep. Gene Taylor, a Mississippi Democrat, who called last year for a Pentagon study on poverty among military personnel.

But Pentagon officials say those drawing federal assistance amount to a small fraction of the nation's 1.4 million service members. The Pentagon study, released in August, found only 451 service members at or below the poverty level. It estimates the number on food stamps at 12,000 -- most serving in the Army.

And the food stamps figure is inflated, Pentagon officials say, because military housing is not counted as income for the purpose of determining eligibility. About 7,000 of those on food stamps qualify even though they live in base housing. The remainder are eligible because of family size.

Service members needing assistance are mostly younger enlistees whose lower pay cannot keep up with their larger families, said Army Lt. Col. Tom Begines, a Defense Department spokesman.

Col. John A. Smith, an Army spokesman, also played down the statistics. "There are people we have on food stamps. Is it a major problem in the Army? No," he said. "Most of them have made choices about their lives that put them in the category of needing them."

Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican and chairman of a House subcommittee on military personnel, doesn't want to discourage young people from joining the service.

"I don't want to send the message to recruiters not to recruit those with two or three children," said Buyer, a major in the Army Reserve.

Joyce Raezer of the National Military Families Association said the problem of making ends meet in the enlisted ranks is greater than statistics show because many eligible families like the Conklins don't apply for food stamps because of pride.

Among them are Army Staff Sgt. Christopher L. Cummings, 28, his wife, Kim, and their four children -- including two from her previous marriage -- who shun food stamps but feel more comfortable using WIC vouchers and other benefit programs.

"Just about everybody I know is on WIC," Kim Cummings said.

Even so, she's troubled by the cold glares from civilian shoppers when she pulls out her WIC vouchers.

"You feel like telling them, 'My husband is in the military and he's serving his country. We're working and we're not taking advantage of the system,' " she said.

Two kids too many?

The Conklins and the Cummings bridle at the Pentagon's argument that their families are too large for their income.

"Do you consider two kids too many?" asked Tracey Conklin.

"I didn't know there was a limit on how many kids you can have," Christopher Cummings said sarcastically. "We have four kids because [Kim] had two from a previous marriage."

Pentagon officials point out that many qualify for WIC because the income threshold is much higher than for food stamps. The income limit for WIC is $29,704 for a family of four, compared with $20,868 for food stamps.

Military-run relief

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