Survey Finds a Decline in Well-Being Among Military Families Amid Stress and Loneliness

Team Shaw members line up and grab some food at a Fall Family Picnic.
Team Shaw members line up and grab some food at a Fall Family Picnic event at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Nov. 21, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Diana M. Cossaboom)

More military families are reporting that their well-being has declined over the past three years, citing financial strain, loneliness and the stressors of military life as reasons why they would not recommend military service, according to a new survey from the Military Family Advisory Network.

Out-of-pocket expenses during frequent military moves, housing and child-care costs, and barriers to spouse employment contribute to situations where military families can never get ahead, according to Shannon Razsadin, the group's president and executive director.

Such hardships particularly affect lower enlisted personnel and their families, presenting an opportunity for the Defense Department to address their issues to improve retention and recruitment, Razsadin said during an interview Monday with

Read Next: Soldiers Now Face Punishment for Sharing, Liking Extremist Content on Social Media Under New Army Policy

"From my vantage point, I think the best way to protect and to preserve the all-volunteer force is to make sure military families thrive. All military families can thrive," Razsadin said.

According to the survey, more than 72% of respondents described their family's well-being as poor to moderate, up from roughly 55% in 2021, with the remainder saying their overall situations were "excellent."

Not surprising, families that had poor or moderate family health were significantly less likely to recommend military services than those with excellent family health.

But what constitutes "excellent" family health? Razsadin said families that are able to shop for and cook healthy meals, cover housing costs or sail through moves are among the most satisfied.

"We have to make sure that people can support their whole family while they are serving," she said.

MFAN has fielded its survey roughly every two years since 2014. Results published Wednesday were from the 2023 survey, conducted from Oct. 2 to Dec. 10, with 10,149 respondents. The spouses of active-duty service members made up the bulk of respondents, at 39%, followed by veterans, not including military retirees, at 18.6%. Active-duty personnel constituted 11% of the group.

More than 76% were enlisted personnel or family members and 48% were affiliated with the Army, with the remainder distributed across the Navy (19.7%), Air Force (15.5%), Marine Corps (11.6%), Coast Guard (6.7%) and Space Force (.8%).

While just over half said they would recommend military life to someone interested in joining, that percentage has dropped steadily over the past six years, from 74.5% in 2019 to 57.6% in 2023.

Among the reasons cited for not recommending were not only pay and benefits and overall hardship but also a culture shift in the U.S. military -- along with differences, divisions, politics and bureaucracy.

"This report really shows how widely varied the experiences are, especially between enlisted and officer families ... but also how this ties into their family health and also their propensity to recommend military service," Razsadin said.

The survey continued to report that the burden of housing costs negatively affected military families: Nearly 80% of families said they were paying more than they comfortably could afford for housing and 48% of active-duty families were severely affected.

Add in out-of-pocket moving expenses, such as living in temporary arrangements while waiting for housing, utility and housing deposits and rental car costs, and military families find it challenging to "get ahead," Razsadin said.

"So we see not only the impact of the family in the immediate but also kind of trickle-down effect," she said.

Among the bright spots in the report were responses regarding health care, with most families reporting high satisfaction rates with quality of care and their providers, although active-duty military families had the lowest satisfaction rates for obtaining appointments and were less satisfied with the quality of care and consistency.

In terms of mental health, a large portion of families that sought it said their experiences were neutral or satisfactory, as opposed to negative.

Although the military community has a reputation for being tight-knit and supportive of its members, a surprising number of respondents reported being lonely. According to the survey, 59% of respondents said they experienced loneliness, with 69.6% of active-duty spouses saying they had felt lonely at some point.

"I was really encouraged to see that more people are seeking out mental health support," Razsadin said. "However, we need to make sure that there are enough appointments available to be able to meet the need and the demand."

The group made several recommendations it hopes will be considered by lawmakers, corporations, and military and veterans service organizations to improve benefits and services.

Razsadin said a top priority should be for the Defense Department to examine the overall experiences of military families and take a holistic approach to supporting them that includes examining the entire compensation package.

"Until we get to a place where military families have every opportunity to be a dual-income household, we have to make sure the right supports are put in place," Razsadin said.

Related: Demands of Military Life Behind Rising Food Insecurity Among Families, Reports Find

Story Continues