Fighting for Michigan veterans in the 2018 Farm Bill

Twelve years ago, my then-fiance was given three weeks’ notice that he was being deployed to Iraq with the Michigan National Guard. We had a quick courthouse wedding, followed by months of phone calls that always ended too soon and a crushing anxiety that felt like it would never end. When I finally got to hug him after another deployment–this time to Afghanistan–I felt an overwhelming sense of relief.

The hard times were over … right?

It turns out, I was not prepared for the insidious ways the deployment experience would continue to affect our lives and the scars our family would bear for years after his return.

Throughout the U.S., there are military families dealing with all that we went through and more. Like so many other American families, they’re struggling to make ends meet. Contrary to popular belief, benefits like lifetime medical coverage and a pension are provided to veterans only if they have served at least 20 years or have a service-connected disability.

Additionally, in some cases, those who are eligible and do not have a disability have to wait until age 59 to collect their pension and use the Veterans Administration health system.

Cumbersome paperwork, long wait times, and transportation challenges can make it even more difficult for servicemembers to use the benefits they’ve earned to meet their basic needs.

People who receive a less-than-honorable discharge may be ineligible for VA healthcare benefits, even though, in some cases, the behavior that leads to that character of discharge may be the result of trauma sustained in the line of duty. A less-than-honorable discharge can also affect eligibility for other benefits, such as a VA mortgage loan, and employability in the civilian world.

Obstacles to physical and mental health, education and work may further compromise veterans’ economic security. Moreover, racial, ethnic and gender disparities that lead to higher poverty rates for women, African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians and Alaska Natives in the civilian world also exist among veterans.

As a result, there are veteran families experiencing food insecurity. They make up 20 percent of households served by the charitable food network.

America’s military involvement in the Middle East is stretching into a second generation. That most recent cohort of veterans is particularly affected by hunger. While veterans overall are actually more food-secure than the general population, the reverse is true for the youngest veterans and those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While elected officials like to tout their support of veterans, especially during an election year, getting traction on tangible policies that can help them and their families is not so easy. The 2018 Farm Bill awaits action by a congressional conference committee. The Farm Bill is the legislation that funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation’s largest anti-hunger program.

Nearly 1.4 million American veterans–about 50,000 in Michigan–use SNAP to provide food for their families. At 9 percent, Michigan has one of the country’s highest rates of veteran SNAP participation.

As in nonveteran households, SNAP in veteran households is vital to maintaining the health, economic security and well-being of children and people with disabilities. About 4 in 5 veterans who use SNAP have a service-connected disability, and veteran families who use SNAP are more likely to have children than other veteran households.

The U.S. Senate approved a version of the Farm Bill that would protect the things that make SNAP so effective in lifting families out of poverty. The House version, however, would slash funding by billions of dollars by eliminating some state flexibility to determine eligibility and by expanding work requirements. The Senate’s plan, which was crafted in a bipartisan fashion, is the better path to food security and self-sufficiency for millions of American households, including those with veterans.

We must fight for those who fight for us by protecting and strengthening SNAP. We can’t have a strong military if its members don’t have enough to eat, and families who are struggling after sacrificing so much shouldn’t be penalized with more stringent work requirements and red tape.

Congress has a real opportunity to go beyond social media platitudes and show our veterans and their families the gratitude they have earned by sending the Senate version of the Farm Bill to the president’s desk.

Julie Cassidy is senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy.