Cuts in the cost of living are making it hard to just exist, military families in Germany say

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This summer, when the Pentagon announced significant cuts in the cost of living for soldiers stationed in Germany and their families, many stared at stacks of bills in bewilderment.

Spouses in Germany say it’s not an affordable place to live right now as the country is hit by skyrocketing utility bills, limited access to childcare and gasoline prices comparable to the United States — all caused by the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic , as well as Russia’s unprecedented invasion of Ukraine.

“I’ve never heard of it [service members or their families] Talk about the job being too hard,” a military spouse at Ramstein Air Base, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, told Military.com. “It’s always these everyday things that make the Pentagon far too difficult. They make it hard to just exist, just survive.”

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The Pentagon announced last week that effective June 1, there will be a cut in the Overseas Living Allowance — also known as COLA — for families in the Kaiserslautern Military Community because rates in the continental United States are now higher than those in Germany.

With approximately 50,000 military members and families, Kaiserslautern is the largest military community outside of the continental United States. It consists of Luftwaffe facilities at Ramstein, Einsiedlerhof, Pirmasens, Vogelweh, and Kapaun Air Station, and Army facilities at Sembach, Kleber, Panzer, and Daenner barracks; country chair; Kirchberg; Depot Miesau; industrial center of Kaiserslautern; Rhine Ordinance; and Pulaski Barracks.

Cost of living rates are determined in part by contributions from service members and their families. The Kaiserslautern Military Community’s recent surge is based on a fall 2021 survey, well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and widespread US inflation

Additionally, spouses told Military.com that the survey took place during the evacuation from Afghanistan, when military personnel were working around the clock to relocate and transport refugees.

“We were in a situation with 30,000 people on the base,” Ramstein’s spouse told Military.com. “No, we didn’t take any surveys.”

Stars and Stripes reported that military services will slowly reduce COLA over the summer through October, a more phased approach than outlined in last week’s announcement. The Pentagon did not respond in time for publication to several questions sent earlier this week about the scope of the cuts.

There are non-taxable COLA allowances to make living abroad more affordable for service members by offsetting the cost of daily expenses to make them comparable to in-state costs. As prices in the United States have risen, the gap has narrowed, prompting cuts, according to the Pentagon.

“As the dollar strengthens against the euro and the cost of commodities in the United States increases relative to the cost of commodities in the Kaiserslautern Military Community, military members can expect COLA payments to decrease,” the press release said.

These cuts mean service members have between $200 and $500 less every two weeks to offset their expenses.

Fears are also growing that Russia could cut gas supplies to Europe. According to Bloomberg, Germany depends on Russia for 40% of its gas supply, and energy supply increases in the country and across Europe have accelerated since the invasion.

Spouses said Kaiserslautern-based utility SWK had announced in a letter to its customers that natural gas would cost 21% more because of Russian aggression in Ukraine. SWK’s gas fees are up nearly 50% from 2020.

However, the Pentagon has said that service members should rely on their utility allowances rather than their living expenses to cope with the energy price hikes.

“Although we saw [a] Significant increase in utilities as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, COLA surveys also do not include utilities. Members receive an incidental fee to cover incidental expenses,” the Pentagon said in a press release.

But a military spouse in Ramstein told Military.com that her family’s utility bill doesn’t reflect changing rates and using COLA has become essential to bridge the gap.

“Our incidental allowance hasn’t changed in the three years we’ve been here,” the spouse told Military.com on condition of anonymity. “So to have that variable income, such a significant chunk … that’s a big deal to say, ‘Oh, you better just budget for it.'”

Spouses are already facing an employment crisis. Limited affordable childcare coupled with a 20% unemployment rate over the past two years has plagued military families, according to a recent study by the nonprofit Blue Star Families.

However, these rates can rise significantly when a soldier is deployed overseas, as spouses face complicated Status of Forces arrangements that sometimes include outright bans on spousal employment, convoluted foreign tax laws, language barriers, and less access to affordable childcare.

As a result, military spouses are often unemployed when living abroad, and the COLA allowance becomes crucial to supplement household income.

A Ramstein wife told Military.com that she would like the Pentagon to recognize and address families’ needs.

“I think it’s going to be a challenge for the DoD to hear some hard truths,” the spouse said. “This is one of those hard truths. … I dread what this means for mental health. I fear what this means for food insecurity.”

— Thomas Novelly can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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