Higher enlisted pay, full housing stipends included in new House plan

by Vern Evans

Troops would see larger monthly housing stipends, more child care and health care access and targeted pay boosts for junior enlisted personnel under a sweeping military quality of life improvement plan unveiled by lawmakers on Thursday.

The 31-point plan — the culmination of more than a year of work by a special panel of House Armed Services Committee members — could provide significant financial relief to struggling military families if enacted. But putting it in place will likely cost tens of billions of dollars in coming years, complicating its passage.

Committee leaders presented the plan as a much-needed blueprint to improve support and lower stress for the most vulnerable service members and their spouses. According to a RAND study released last year, as many as one in four troops suffers from some level of food insecurity, either because of poor pay or other service complications.

The recommendations with the most direct impact on troops’ family finances would be the targeted pay boosts and housing stipend increases.

Under the panel’s recommendations, all troops ranked E-4 and below would see a 15% pay boost.

“This will restore real value to basic pay, given the increase in civilian earnings for those with high school diplomas and those with some college,” the lawmakers wrote.

Military members receive regular pay increases annually, but lawmakers on the panel said that those pay hikes have not kept up with inflation in recent years. That has been especially painful for the youngest enlisted troops, some of whom earn less than $25,000 a year in base pay.

The targeted increases would bring most of those individuals’ pay to more than $31,000 annually — roughly the equivalent of a $15-an-hour wage in the civilian workforce.

Similarly, increasing troops’ housing allowance would provide more immediate financial flexibility.

Since 2016, the Defense Department has provided a stipend worth 95% of regional housing costs to eligible troops and families, with the exact amounts dependent on rank, zip code and whether an individual has dependents. The panel report recommends boosting that to 100%, a move that could provide several thousand dollars annually to some families.

Advocates have long pushed for the move, arguing that the current policy hurts troops by shortchanging them on housing expenses. But defense officials have said that move alone would cost the department more than $1 billion annually, money that will need to be taken from other readiness or modernization accounts in a constrained budget environment.

Other panel recommendations include better pay and benefits for Defense Department child care workers, to help recruit and retain more staffers; expanding eligibility for the military’s Basic Allowance for Subsistence stipend; amending hiring authorities to bring in more medical administrative staff; and improving military spouse career programs.

Panel members said the moves all come in response to “recurring concerns” from military members and outside advocates. The report was signed by seven Republicans and six Democrats, and supported by leadership from both parties.

The House Armed Services Committee is expected to craft its annual defense authorization bill over the next six weeks. The legislation has passed for more than 60 consecutive years and is considered the most likely vehicle for whichever report recommendations committee leaders opt to advance this year.

Senate leaders have expressed support for some of the ideas in the report but have not committed to any specific plans on military pay or quality of life changes.

Military Times reporter Karen Jowers contributed to this report.

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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