Opinion Editorials

This week, the United States Senate passed legislation authorizing funding for our national defense. Although this bill is notable for a 4.4% increase in defense spending over last year -- nearly $8.3 billion above the President's budget request -- it fails to adequately provide for our enlisted men and women. In America today, 12,000 military personnel must subsist on food stamps. They line up after hours in civilian clothes to receive their monthly allotment of food stamps, even though they work full-time. They line up on weekends to receive free cans of food from charitable organizations trying to help. They humbly accept used furniture and basic household items that have been donated by others who want to help young families in need. Many have no choice but to participate in Women, Infants, Children (WIC), a social program for pregnant women and new mothers who require nutritional supplements. These enlisted service members of our all-volunteer, world-class military have taken an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, and they proudly wear their uniforms on our behalf, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. These military men and women -- our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines -- are the very same Americans that the President and Congress have sent into harm's way in recent years in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, and now East Timor. The men and women who volunteer to serve our country in the military have a right to a decent salary, and we have a responsibility to pay them adequately. In recent years, annual military pay increases have barely kept pace with inflation, while lagging 13.5% behind the pay increases in the private sector during the same period. To put the impact of such trends in plain dollar amounts, the lowest enlisted rank, an E-1, currently earns as little as $11,512 per year, plus $2,737 in allowances, which is well below the poverty level for a family of four. In fact, the number of men and women in the military earning less than $20,000 per year constitutes 45% of the Army, 46% of the Marine Corps, 26% of the Navy, and 18% of the Air Force. Of these service members, 111,600 have families and 6,515 are single parents. These military personnel are extremely dependent on military base facilities and services; yet such services simply are not sufficient to make up for a lack of adequate pay. In addition to those already receiving food stamps, the military services estimate that at least 12,000 more service members are eligible to receive the program's benefits. Nearly 94 percent of all food stamp households have a gross income equal to or less than the U.S. government's official poverty guidelines. This phenomenon is extremely troubling -- never before in our nation's history have so many military service members been forced to obtain food stamps, enroll in WIC, and participate in other social welfare programs just to make ends meet. Even in the aftermath of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, our enlisted service members were adequately compensated and could fully care for their families. Unfortunately, this inequity has occurred after a decade of severe underfunding of our military, during the strongest economic boom America has ever experienced. In this nation's most prosperous time, our enlisted service members -- the defenders of our liberty -- cannot share in America's success. Earlier this year, the Senate passed legislation I sponsored that would get our service men and women off food stamps by increasing their pay by $180 per month. Although the proposal would have cost the Defense Department approximately $6 million annually, the Congressional Budget Office found that it actually would have represented a net savings to taxpayers, since it would have saved more money in the Agriculture Department's food stamp program. Unfortunately, the defense bill passed by the House of Representatives did not contain this increase, and in conference negotiations with the Senate, House members successfully removed it from the final bill, despite the strong support of the military. I cannot explain how this much-needed measure could be so summarily rejected, particularly in a year when Congress voted to increase its own pay. Congress has shirked its responsibility by not giving these men and women the respect they deserve, and I believe that many Americans and certainly the many service members currently on food stamps deserve an explanation. Those House members who so strongly opposed this initiative should be asked why they pushed for a 15 percent annual pay raise for generals and admirals, but worked so hard against this program to ensure enlisted service members could get off the food stamp rolls for good. I will continue to work to end this gross injustice, and I believe that most Americans will support my effort. I will not stand by and watch as our military is destroyed by the President's lack of foresight and the Congress' lack of compassion. Our service members deserve better. They deserve our respect, our support, and a living wage.