Active duty servicemembers regularly receive three types of pay: Basic Pay, Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS) and Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH). Basic Pay is based on rank (grade) and time in service, while BAS is paid at either the “enlisted” or “officer” rate, regardless of rank (the enlisted rate is currently 45% higher than the officer rate). BAH is a bit more complicated, as it is based not only on local rental rates and rank, but also on whether or not the servicemember in question has dependents. For example, in the area defined as “WASHINGTON, DC METRO AREA (DC053)”, BAH rates are over $400 more per month for a servicemember with dependents. This means that a married person (or an unmarried person with dependents, which is much less common) in the US military is paid over $5000 per year more than a single person performing the exact same duties.
In addition to getting thousands of dollars more per year in tax-free allowances for doing the same jobs as single servicemembers, dependents (who outnumber the active duty force by about 600,000; there were approximately two million dependents in 2010 and only 1.4 million servicemembers on active duty) receive (nearly) free healthcare (depending on what version of Tricare they choose, annual costs can be zero if prescriptions are filled at Military Treatment Facilities). How much do these benefits cost? In fiscal year 2012, the budget for the “overall Military Health System” is $52.5 billion. This covers “over 9.6 million servicemembers, retirees, and their families”. Keeping in mind that there are two million dependents of active duty servicemembers, they make up over 20% of the burden on the Military Health System (in total numbers; I will concede that they likely account for less than 20% of the budget). Regardless, billions of dollars are being spent on health care for dependents, effectively increasing the pay of servicemembers with dependents (with respect to their peers) even more than the differential created by BAH.
So what does all of this have to do with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)?
In 1969, Air Force lieutenant Sharron Frontiero got married and applied for dependent benefits (“increased quarters allowances and medical and dental benefits”) for her husband. At the time, female spouses were automatically granted dependent status while a male spouse had to be proven to be dependent on his active duty wife (i.e. receiving more than 50% of his income from her). SPLC filed a complaint on her behalf, and was eventually successful in having the policy declared in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment by the Supreme Court in 1973. From SPLC’s website:
The landmark decision helped pave the way for servicewomen to receive equal benefits and for all women to receive equal treatment under the law.
But servicewomen did not receive equal benefits. Married servicewomen began receivinggreater benefits than their single counterparts. The SPLC had not made the military more equal (which could have been accomplished by advocating that the military recognize that the age of spouses as “dependents” had passed), but simply increased the number of servicemembers eligible to receive more pay for doing the same amount of work.
Now, following the example they set 40 years ago, the SPLC seeks to further increase the numbers of those receiving something for nothing by challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on behalf of Tracey Cooper-Harris, a female veteran married to her female spouse. This challenge is related to the inherent conflict between DOMA and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), that I wrote about last September. The solution, however, is not to start paying more servicemembers more money for doing the same job as the next man or woman (gay or straight). The solution is to move to a single rank- and location-based BAH system and to overhaul the Military Healthcare System such that servicemembers all receive the same pay and benefits and can choose to use some of that money to enroll whomever they wish to receive medical and dental benefits.
If the SPLC believes in equal work for equal pay, fairness, equality and any of the other platitudes to be found on their website, they will put their energy toward overhauling a system that pays 38% of the military significantly less than the other 62% for doing the same work. Otherwise, they are simply pandering to a small vocal minority at the expense of hundreds of thousands of single servicemembers of every gender, race and sexual orientation.