Coast Guard spouse of the year: Military families shouldn't have to rely on food banks

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'How could the needs of those who would sacrifice their lives for this country be ignored?'

When Americans see military men and women in their uniforms, a common greeting is "Thank you for your service." Service members will smile, nod, and continue on in quiet pride to serve the United States. I know, because I am married to one.

What Americans do not know is that many of our junior service members live in poverty.

At a time when our defense budget is nearly as high as it has ever been, you'd imagine that those who serve would not have to worry about putting food on the table. Unfortunately, you'd be wrong and that is because there is a lack of affordable child care and employment opportunities for military spouses.

The partial government shutdown that started last December and lasted more than a month — making it the longest government shutdown in U.S. history —  rattled the lives of so many Americans across the country. 

It also meant that members of the United States Coast Guard — or "Coasties," as they are often called — weren't getting paid. The Coast Guard is not funded by the Department of Defense, but it is an essential branch of our military responsible for search and rescue, fighting drug trafficking, and law enforcement of coastal water. It serves a vital role in our border security.  

Although no one was thrilled about the shutdown, many thought it wouldn't last long. My husband continued to go to work and serve this country, unpaid, just like all of the other men and women of the Coast Guard. Although the government failed them, they wouldn't fail their country. 

I had a feeling this was going to be different, so I started the first food bank on my base in Cape May, New Jersey. I encouraged all families to utilize it because I just knew we were going to miss our first paycheck in January 2019. It was during this time that I was floored by the discovery that many of our families had already been using food banks just to get by prior to the shutdown. I realized that the usage of food banks was a symptom of a larger issue. 

There is a misconception that when you are in the military, you live comfortably and that joining the service is a fast ticket out of poverty. This is not the case for our junior enlisted. After six months, a non-rate makes $1,884 a month in basic pay before taxes or health insurance is deducted if they have a family. 

A 2014 study by Feeding America, conducted over four years, found that 620,000 military households — or 1 in 4 military families — seek food assistance.  

Low pay, high cost of living, workforce barriers for military spouses, and the lack of affordable quality child care means that many junior enlisted families survive on that member's paycheck alone, and it doesn't go far enough. 

Currently, the unemployment rate for military spouses is sitting at 25%, according to the 2018 Blue Stars Family Survey. That same survey found that two-thirds of military families experience stress due to their current financial situation. This is why we must push for affordable child care and more work opportunities for military spouses. 

In a lot of ways, the military has started to reflect the issues of so many others in the American economy. 

Right now, many military families do not qualify for food assistance even though they desperately need it. In 2017, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives to address this, but it was never brought to a vote. How could the needs of those who would sacrifice their lives for this country be ignored?

The assumption that families need to budget better or take financial accountability classes is laughable. During the shutdown, Coast Guard families were given a list of ways to earn extra money and encouraged to have garage sales as we went unpaid while serving. The recommendation was quickly taken down after the outrage that followed. 

Although the government shutdown is months behind us, food insecurity persists for a quarter of our military families. As time goes on, it becomes increasingly more difficult for our junior families to provide for their families. 

Military families are a proud and resilient group of people, but even we need help. Today, many families of those who would willingly die for our country are lining up at food banks. This can't be our reality — but it is. I implore our elected officials to recognize the needs of our military families. Stand for them the way they do for you.

Jessica Manfre is the 2019 Armed Forces Insurance Coast Guard Spouse of the Year. She has spent the past decade working with vulnerable populations and advocating for those in need, and is currently finishing her master's in social work. She resides in Illinois with her husband of 12 years and her two children.