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If you are a working parent in 2018, you know how hard it is to find suitable childcare. It’s more of an art than a science to identify a childcare option that is affordable, close to either work or home, reliable, flexible when we need it to be, and with a person or business we trust with our own children. Oh – and has current openings (don’t you just love those wait lists?!).

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The annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey (#BSFSurvey) has consistently demonstrated that childcare is one of the biggest obstacles to military spouse employment. Sadly, it may actually be deterring military spouses from entering the labor force. In 2017, 51 percent of non-working spouse respondents said they would like to be employed. This increased to 64 percent if childcare was available.

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What ‘childcare availability means’ to military families

“Available” means different things to different people, making this issue even more complex.

For most military families, “available” means “affordable.” 67 percent of military spouse respondents said the cost of childcare and/or other costs associated with working was among their top obstacles to employment. 36 percent of military spouse respondents who want to work said that affordability wasn’t just an obstacle, but an actual barrier to employment because they would not make enough money to cover the cost of childcare.

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For other families, “available” means “has an opening for my child,” “is reliable,” “is high-quality,” “is trustworthy,” “is a reasonable distance from my home or workplace,” “is flexible,” or any combination of these attributes.

Finding the perfect balance can be difficult for military families who move every few years and often don’t have relatives nearby to help out. A recent poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 25 percent of people polled said their child was most often cared for by a relative. This suggests that civilian families who face childcare affordability and/or accessibility issues often turn to relatives for support. Without this support system readily available, most military families have no alternatives to government or private options.

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People are listening, thanks to you

Policy reform doesn’t exactly hook most people’s interest.

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That means you may not be aware of how your feedback through the #BSFSurvey and other outlets is actually leading to meaningful change for you and other military families. For example, BSF, as part of a task force convened by the Bipartisan Policy Center, used the experiences in the Survey to advance reforms including extended Child Development Center (CDC) hours and installation childcare coordinators.

This increased awareness led to two pieces of bipartisan legislation: The Availability of Childcare for Every Servicemember and Spouse Act” (ACCESS Act), sponsored by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Tom Cotton (R-AR), and The Military Spouse Unemployment Act of 2018, sponsored by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA). Nearly all childcare-related provisions from these two bills have since been included (in whole or in part) in the 2018 and 2019 National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAAs).

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Short-term relief

The following provisions from the 2018 NDAA alleviate childcare shortages and difficulties in the short-term.

  • Child Development Centers (CDCs) are now required to establish hours only after considering the job demands and mission requirements of the units whose members use the center. Considerations must now include work schedule unpredictability, the potential for frequent and prolonged absences, the geographic separation of members from extended family, and the extent to which spouses are employed or pursuing educational opportunities on a part- or full-time basis. You know, your typical “unique military schedule requirements” stuff.
  • Military installations with a large number of dependent children must have childcare coordinators. These childcare coordinators advocate for military families on- and off-installation; collaborate with garrison commanders to ensure CDCs provide quality care and are responsive to needs of members; and work with private off-installation childcare services to track vacancies, try to get favorable pricing, and otherwise ease use. In short? Childcare coordinators work on behalf of military families to help make their services better with your children in mind.
  • CDCs can bypass the competitive hiring process to fill critical vacancies and quickly increase CDC capacity. You should already be seeing the effects of this measure through [slightly] shorter wait lists and more personnel. This temporary  Direct Hire Authority (DHA) expires September 30, 2021, by which time CDCs should be fully-staffed and able to handle high demand. This provision is great news for military families. Not only will it cut down on wait-lists, but it will also help military spouses who want to work in childcare centers. Unlike the “non-competitive hiring authority” addressed in President Trump’s recent Executive Order, individuals hired into these positions do not always have to compete for positions if they are fully-qualified. The onboarding timeline is often much shorter, too, which is great news for spouses who only spend a few years in each place.

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What the future could look like

In addition to the provisions above, Congress wants the DoD to explore ways to fix systemic problems in the long-run. (Note: * indicates provisions in the 2019 NDAA which has not yet been enacted)

Congress wants the DoD to assess these pain points for military families:

Explore effects of expanding and contracting childcare services.

  • Expanding CDC operating hours to support swing-shift, night-shift, and weekend workers
  • Contracting with private providers for service members to use existing off-installation facilities and/or inviting private providers to operate childcare facilities on military installations
  • Allowing members of the National Guard and Reserves to access DoD-sponsored childcare facilities without decreasing active duty access or increasing cost
  • Expanding childcare hours at military installations that host initial training units in order to accommodate drill instructors, trainers, and support personnel*
  • Determining whether or not more families would seek childcare off-installation if DoD adjusted subsidies to account for the cost of living and average cost of civilian childcare centers in areas surrounding military installations.*  
  • Permitting the issuance of employee clearances on a provisional or interim basis for those working in military childcare centers*

Identify childcare backlog root causes and quantify their impact on member recruitment/retention and military spouse unemployment/underemployment*.

Fixing the backlog problem will probably require more than hiring additional personnel. All big organizations have inefficiencies, broken processes, or outdated policies that contribute to systemic problems. Congress wants the DoD to provide the information they need to conduct a “cost-benefit analysis” on fixing the problem. At the end of the day, the DoD will need to answer the question “is the cost of fixing this worth the benefit of user recruitment/retention and reduced military spouse unemployment/underemployment?”

Review compensation for childcare services providers and make recommendations to more effectively recruit and retain personnel.

Personnel shortages almost always exist for a reason. This information will allow Congress to make any legislative changes necessary to ensure CDCs can offer competitive compensation packages to attract and keep quality personnel. Reducing turnover and filling slots will be critical to keeping capacity high and wait-lists short in the long-term.

Next steps?

It would be awesome to see some of these things go into effect immediately rather than waiting on the results of a DoD study.

But here’s the deal: this is how policy works. This is how compromise works. Incremental change is still change.

The important thing is that you are sharing your stories in the #BSFSurvey. BSF is pushing your stories out. And the people we are pushing them to are listening. Together we will continue to move toward sustainable childcare solutions.

Good job, team.

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By Jennifer Akin, MPA | Applied Research Analyst and Consultant | Blue Star Families