Lack of Child Care, Long Unemployment Are Keeping Military Spouses Out of Workforce, Survey Finds

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Hiring Heroes Career Fair at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.
A representative from the Defense Finance & Accounting Service speaks with a potential candidate Sept. 19, 2018 during the Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, DoD Hiring Heroes Career Fair. (U.S. Air Force photo by Michael L. Watkins, Jr.)

WASHINGTON -- Limited affordable child care combined with extended unemployment has kept the spouses of active-duty service members out of the job market, according to a new report released Wednesday by Blue Star Families, a national nonprofit that supports the military community.

Unemployment for spouses of active-duty members has remained at 20% for the last two years, the report found, a rate four to six times the total national average.

According to the nonprofit's 2021 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, access to and costs of child care, plus long gaps in meaningful employment, served as critical barriers to spouses obtaining new job opportunities. But military leaders and lawmakers say they are working to find fixes.

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Thirty-four percent of those who answered the survey said that child care was too expensive, and 25% said that they had been out of the workforce too long and did not know how to get back into the job market, factors that along with the regular moves mandated by military life have led to elevated unemployment for years.

More than 8,000 active-duty troops, National Guardsmen and reservists, veterans and military family members responded to this annual survey between April and June 2021 about key issues facing the military community, including health, quality of life, financial security, housing and unemployment.

"I know from my personal experience that with pride and service to the country there also come many unique challenges military families face as opposed to their civilian counterparts," Jill Kiah-Saslav, a military spouse, said at a virtual event Wednesday announcing the results of the survey.

The percentage of spouses of active-duty members who no longer participate in the labor force remained relatively flat, increasing from 41% in 2020 to 42% last year -- excluding spouses who are on active duty themselves -- but the survey underlines a broader trend that quality child care is a primary impediment to finding jobs.

"The frequent relocations, the time spent apart from your loved ones, the lack of employment or underemployment for spouses and changes to your children's education can be incredibly challenging," Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said during the online event. "Add on top of that all a global pandemic."

The pandemic also amplified the difficulty military spouses confront finding affordable and available child care. More than half of all American families spent over $10,000 on child care in 2021, according to a Care.com survey.

With more children taking classes remotely last year, many military spouses told Blue Star Families that they chose to serve as educators at home rather than balance a job with expensive and limited options for child care.

That trend was compounded by a growing number of survey takers in active-duty families who are choosing to home-school their children -- 13%, which is nearly four times higher than the percentage of children 5-17 years old who are home-schooled in the general population.

In addition to child care, the report cited certification transfers for military partners, such as teacher's licenses, as a significant impediment to retaining employment due to frequent moves.

"The annual survey provides an important pulse check for me and other senior military leaders on how our families are doing, and it helps inform our policy process," Wormuth said.

She noted a few steps the Army has taken to combat the issue of military spouse unemployment, including expanding the staff of the service's employment readiness team.

Military spouse employment ranked No. 1 among the top five issues facing active-duty military families, according to the report, closely followed by "time away from family" and "child(ren)'s education."

Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., also spoke during the online event about their recent efforts to require the Department of Defense to conduct an in-depth study on military spouse employment issues.

Last year, the DoD for the first time opened a separate biennial survey to all military spouses about their military life experiences. The hope is that the survey will help the Defense Department gauge whether and how to adjust its family oriented programs.

The military services have launched a number of tools like MilSpouse Money Mission and the MyNavy Family app that are designed to help military families navigate employment and find financial resources.

-- Jonathan Lehrfeld is a reporter for Medill News Service.

Related: The State of Veteran and Spouse Hiring During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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