WASHINGTON -- Moving to defuse an embarrassing campaign issue, the Pentagon Friday proposed a $31 million-a-year plan to reduce the number of U.S. troops eligible for federal food stamps.
Defense officials asked Congress to approve a "subsistence plan" that would give lower-paid enlisted troops electronic debit cards so they could obtain groceries while avoiding the stigma of taking part in a program for the poor. About 6,300 troops now receive the stamps, most of them low-ranking enlisted service members struggling to support large families on pay that starts at less than $1,200 a month.
GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush has sought to make the problem the centerpiece of his argument that eight years of the Clinton administration has left the armed forces overworked and underpaid. "This is not the way the nation should reward courage and idealism," he said.
The Pentagon's proposed program would give troops a fixed benefit each month, depending on their rank and family size. The program would be administered on military bases, rather than through government offices elsewhere, to make it more convenient. Eligible service members would use their cards at commissaries, which sell groceries at a discount of about 25 percent.
In remote locations, where there are no commissaries, the troops would present their receipts so they could be reimbursed for grocery expenses up to a specified amount.
Vice President Al Gore, who has sought to distance himself from the problem, said in a statement that he strongly supports the Pentagon proposal. He said that he had brought the issue to President Clinton's attention and "worked with the Pentagon to search for solutions."
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