In our 2019 survey, 27% of service member respondents with children reported that a lack of child care was a top stressor, and 54% reported that the unavailability of child care negatively impacted their pursuit of employment and/or education. Child care concerns tend to overwhelmingly affect women throughout the United States, including in the military population. Therefore, there were notable differences between male and female service members’ responses.
Additionally, 44% of female service member respondents with children reported that a lack of child care was a top stressor, compared to 20% of male service member respondents with children. There was a similar disparity seen between female and male service members concerning those negatively impacted by the unavailability of child care. In fact, 62% of female service member respondents said that child care moderately to completely prevented their pursuit of education, compared to 51% of male service member respondents. Although there was a gender difference, it is important to note that half of male service member respondents also reported being negatively impacted.
The conversation around child care has often focused on availability; however, our 2019 findings suggest that affordability may be a primary factor. Child care costs are a financial strain for most American families, and, as Child Care Aware of America’s annual report states, “in many homes across the country, child care costs exceed the cost of housing, college tuition, transportation, or food.”
Service members and their families are no exception. When asked about how much stress their financial condition causes them, 58% of service member respondents reported “some stress” or “a great deal of stress” about their current financial condition. Twenty-three percent of service member respondents who are stressed about their current financial condition reported out-of-pocket child care costs as a top contributing factor.
When service member respondents who served 10 years or less were asked why they would leave the military (aside from medical or administrative discharge), 49% responded “concerns about the impact of military service on my family.” Part of the impact on their families includes spouse employment concerns related to child care. Forty-five percent of military spouse respondents who are not working but need/want to work reported child care costs being too expensive as the reason why they were not working, compared to only 24% who reported “the waitlist is too long.”
For Americans, more broadly, the burden of child care can impact their economic growth in two ways: decreased productivity of its citizens and pushing more citizens into taxpayer-sponsored programs such as SNAP, WIC, and TANF. Additionally, literature suggests young Americans are having fewer children due to child care expense concerns. Among those who volunteer to serve, a disproportionate number comes from military families, meaning there could be future recruitment-related challenges if military families choose to have fewer children because of child care expense issues.
Economists who have looked at child care issues among the general public agree that an effective solution should come from some form of government investment in child care and better paid parental leave policies. Currently, some publicly supported child care programs require military families to include additional pay, such as their Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) as part of their total income. Therefore, many are ineligible for subsidized rates or lower subsidies, creating further financial strain.
States can follow the example of California’s 2007 emergency regulation that exempted military families from including BAH in their total income level. The branches of service have addressed parental leave policies for service members; however, these are not consistent among the branches.
Overall, the DoD can further evaluate the equitable impact of child care issues; while female service members do tend to be impacted by child care issues more than male service members, these findings suggest affordability of child care is not just a female service member issue.
Affordability of Child Care Isn’t Just a Female Service Member Issue
“I temporarily deferred TDY training until my child was over 1 year based on my inability to find affordable child care at the TDY location.” - Air Force Service Member (2019 Military Family Lifestyle Survey)