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By Catharine Richert March 11, 2010

Obama's pay increase for the military based on formula

Here at PolitiFact, we're huge fans of social media.

So when readers requested we check a claim that had gone viral over Facebook, we jumped at the chance.

Here's what they sent us:

"Obama has proposed a 1.4% pay increase for active duty military in 2011. This is THE LOWEST SINCE 1973! Nice to know that during a time of rampant inflation, while war is fought in 2 theatres, our men and women in uniform get A LOWER PAY INCREASE THAN WELFARE RECIPIENTS!!! Please repost if you support our troops"

This is a first for us; the claim is part status update, part chain e-mail.

To check this claim, it's important to understand how the government typically treats military pay raises. By law, the administration is required to propose pay increases that match increases in the Employment Cost Index, a quarterly economic report that details changes in the costs of labor for businesses. Military pay is tied to this measure to ensure that pay keeps up with salaries in the private sector.

Now, while the administration is required to match the ECI, the law does give the president some discretion. In national emergencies or "serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare" the president can propose an alternative pay adjustment up or down. In fact, the last president to use this authority was Bill Clinton, who actually proposed no pay increase for the military in 1994, according to Colonel Michael Hayden, deputy director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America. But Congress ultimately approved a 2.2 percent increase.

Obama recently released his budget for 2011, and it included a 1.4 percent pay raise for military personnel, which, again, is in line with the ECI. Clearly, that's lower than the 2.9 percent increase Obama requested last year. But that's because wages and salaries in the private sector only increased 1.4 percent during 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which collects and publishes the data. It's the smallest percentage change since the BLS started collecting such data in 1975.

So, it's true that Obama has proposed a 1.4 percent pay increase for the military in 2011. By law, it's what he was required to propose.

In fact, because the pay raises come out of the Department of Defense budget, it has asked Congress not to exceed the 1.4 percent pay raise, because the department needs those funds for other programs, including $50 billion to fully fund the Defense Health Program and sustain benefits for about 9.5 million beneficiaries, $2.2 billion for the care of wounded soldiers, and a $500 million increase in funding for family support programs, according to the Department of Defense.

But the smallest since 1973, as the Facebook message suggests? It seems that number came from news reports that, if approved, the pay increase would be the smallest since the military became an all-volunteer force in 1973 and military pay rates were overhauled to match private sector pay for civilian workers with similar skills, education and experience. So, setting 1973 as the benchmark sets up a reasonable comparison.

But Hayden also sent us the a copy of page 51 of the Fifth Edition of the the Military Compensation Background Papers, which includes data going as far back as 1945. According to that document, military personnel got no pay increase in 1962, making Obama's proposal the smallest since then.

The last part of the claim -- that the military pay increase is lower than what welfare recipients are getting this year -- was nearly impossible to sort out. That's because the term "welfare" refers to an array of programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, the Child Nutrition Program and food stamps. Many of these programs are administered by the states. For example, with TANF the federal government gives block grants to states, which use these funds to operate low-income benefits. That funding has not increased since 1996, according to Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

It's worth noting that the food stamp program got a funding boost in the stimulus bill; the legislation allocated $295 million to states to administer the program and a $19.9 billion temporary benefits increase for recipients. But Congress doesn't approve an annual "pay increase" for welfare recipients as it does for the military. So, there's really no comparison.

So, this viral Facebook update is correct that Obama proposed a 1.4 percent pay increase for military personnel in 2011. Depending on the time frame, it's the smallest since 1973 or 1962. But there are some big inaccuracies about this claim as well. First and foremost, there's really no such thing as a pay increase for welfare recipients, so it's impossible to compare military pay to support for low-income communities. Furthermore, the claim leaves out important details about why Obama chose a 1.4 percent pay increase; in short, he's required to by law. And while Congress can approve a larger number -- and under extenuating circumstances, the president can propose an alternative pay raise -- the administration is discouraging Congress from doing so in order to keep other military programs, such as health care, well funded.

Because this claim leaves out important details, we find it Barely True.

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Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.

Our Sources

Government Executive, Obama backs 2 percent civilian pay raise, 2.9 percent for military, by Brittany R. Ballenstedt, Feb. 26, 2009

The White House, Standing by Military Families, accessed March 8, 2011, White House Offers 1.4% Pay Raise in 2011, by Leo Shane III, Jan. 27, 2010

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Cost Index, December 2009, accessed March 8, 2010

Cornell University Law School, § 1009. Adjustments of monthly basic pay, accessed March 8, 2010

Army Times, 1.4 percent raise would be smallest since 1962, By Rick Maze, accessed March 10, 2010

Fifth Edition of the the Military Compensation Background Papers, accessed March 10, 2010, Social Welfare Services, accessed March 9, 2010

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Policy Basics: An Introduction to TANF, accessed March 10, 2010

National Public Radio, Stimulus Would Help States Provide Food Stamps, by Pam Fessler, Feb. 10, 2009

ProPublica, The Stimulus Plan: A Detailed List of Spending, by Michael Grabell and Christopher Weaver, Feb. 13, 2009

E-mail interview Colonel Michael Hayden, deputy director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, March 8, 2010

E-mail interview, Liz Schott, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 10, 2010

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Obama's pay increase for the military based on formula

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