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Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance May Help Some, But Not Many

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Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of the Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance (FSSA) Program. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? You, gentle readers with your hands in your laps, are not alone. The program, outlined in Department of Defense (DOD) Instruction 1341.11, isn’t very well known. The website used to determine eligibility for the program has received a mere 11,214 visitors as of this writing, and your correspondent accounts for 3 of those.

This poster in the Commissary at Moffett Field, CA was the first time in 38 years I had ever heard of FSSA. Perhaps I should get out more.

Simply put, FSSA is a DoD program designed to make sure military members do not have to rely on food stamps, recently renamed the USDA’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Members whose family is a certain size or higher and whose income is below a certain threshold receive “voluntary financial benefits,” in other words, cash. The benefits are capped at $500 a month.

Service members whose income is within 130% of the USDA’s poverty line can apply for benefits, which are indexed to income, household size, and location.  The details, and an application, are available at the website above.

Whether or not the income received is taxable has no bearing whatsoever on its inclusion in your eligibility calculation. Almost all military pays are included, with the exception of COLA. An exhaustive list of what to include and what to exclude can be found on the monthly income limit help link at the FSSA website.

That is all that is simple about this program. I put the program to a panel of several of my military friends, and was floored by the responses. “What in the wide, wide world of sports is FSSA?” was the most polite response I received. Having had sailors in my division and department who probably could have used this program, I expected it to be received with widespread support.

Of the panel members, not one thought this program was a good idea.  Each of the panel members was either a field-grade officer or the spouse of one, and each was previously known to me. The statisticians among you will draw from those facts that this is a completely unscientific survey with a serious case of self-selection bias. Here’s what, other than the aforementioned “what’s that,” the panel had to say:

“Why haven’t I ever heard of this program?” I had never heard of it either until I saw a poster in my local commissary. The instruction is clear that the military secretaries “shall communicate information about the FSSA Program through their venues,” and that the “Heads of the DoD Components shall ensure that DoD Component personnel and their families shall be informed of the FSSA Program, with particular emphasis on junior personnel.”

Apparently the heads of the DoD components have never heard the dictum I learned as a very junior Ensign: “never be the senior man with a secret.” If the heads of the DoD components aren’t ensuring that company grade officers and NCOs know of this program so they can pass it on to their people, are they in compliance with 1341.11?

 “Why doesn’t the DoD, facing massive budget cuts, get rid of this program and let Agriculture support the troops?”  I had to admit I thought this was a reasonable point. Given the superlative coverage of the DoD budget crisis here at militaryfamily.com (read here and here), I was not surprised my panel was well versed in the DOD’s budget woes. Other than a “we take care of our own” mentality, what could be driving this program?

 “Isn’t this just the sort of thing General Mundy warned us about?” Back in 1993, then Commandant of the Marine Corps General Carl Mundy issued a directive essentially banning married Marines if in their first enlistment. Among the General’s worries was that young enlisted Marines did not make enough to support a family. The directive was overturned posthaste by the Commander in Chief himself, and the General issued an apology.

Citing a long-ago rule that enlisted personnel had to have their CO’s permission to marry, one panelist, unaware of the Mundy brouhaha, echoed some of the General’s reasoning: “Those [marriage] requests wouldn’t get approved because kids couldn’t afford to be married and live off base. There wasn’t on base housing for junior enlisted in those days.”

In response to this, I did some digging and found these two scenarios which may raise your eyebrows. Consider two E-3s with 2 years in the service, we’ll call them Hospitalman Robb and Lance Corporal Roy. HN Robb is assigned to Naval Medical Center San Diego, CA, (92134) and LCPL Roy is assigned to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA, (93944). Each is married with one child.

If either of these service members makes less than $2,008 a month, they qualify for FSSA.  Here are their monthly income particulars:

HN Robb                                 LCPL Roy

Basic Pay                      $1,868                                    $1,868

BAS                              $348.44                                  $348.44

BAH                              $1,959                                    $1,815

COLA                            excluded                                excluded    

Total                             $4,175.44                               $4,031.44


Based on these figures, the light from FSSA won’t make it to these service members for several years; they make far too much money to qualify. These calculations also don’t count any income their spouses may bring in.  According to the FSSA website, Robb and Roy would have to have 9 members in their household to qualify for FSSA.

I expanded the scenarios to try and find a situation where FSSA would actually come into play. Consider two E-1s, Private Charles and Seaman Recruit Stuart. PVT Charles has a wife and a child, and is stationed at Fort Wainwright, AK (99703), while SR Stuart is stationed at Naval Station Pearl Harbor, HI (96860). Here are their monthly particulars:

PVT Charles                           SR Stuart

Basic Pay                       $1,491                                   $1,491

BAS                               $348.44                                  $348.44

BAH                               $1,620                                    $1,860

COLA                             excluded                                 excluded    

Total                              $3,459.44                                $3,699.44

Again, these individuals make too much to qualify for FSSA, even given the fact Alaska and Hawaii have higher income thresholds to qualify. A household of 3 in Alaska qualifies for FSSA with an income below $2,509, while the same in Hawaii qualifies with an income below $2,310. Based on these calculations, Charles and Stuart would have to increase their household size to 5 in order to qualify for FSSA.

Whom does the FSSA actually benefit? If you know of any soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines who could use this program, make sure to let them know it exists. Based on the numbers I’ve run here, it appears to be only for the largest families.