Ernest "Nest" Cage is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He currently serves as a senior defense fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as the deputy executive assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His opinions do not represent the official policies or views of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.
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In the military, one of the most stressful parts of relocating to a new assignment, second only to finding a home, is securing child care. The post-COVID economy has driven cost and competition for child care to all-time highs, leaving service members to figure out the challenging question of how to pay for something they have to cover.
That's gotten harder as the price of everything from bread to gas has gone up at breakneck speed, far outpacing military pay increases. Child care costs have risen dramatically during the pandemic by 41%, now accounting for 20% of the average American's salary.
The Department of Defense should push for legislation and funding to cover the cost of non-school age child care for all active-duty junior enlisted troops and company-grade officers in the paygrades of E-1 through E-5 and O-1 through O-3 who have eligible dependents. This entitlement would help bolster mission readiness, strengthen young military families' finances, and, in an increasingly difficult recruiting environment, better position the armed forces to compete for talent.
Right now is the right time for this change as the secretaries of the Army and Air Force have made family matters a top priority. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall recently announced that his service would work to incrementally improve military Child Development Center (CDC) capacity by allocating more military construction dollars and increasing center staffing. The Air Force is also implementing a Basic Needs Allowance program, one mandated for creation across the services, that provides additional income for service members whose pay falls below 130% of the federal poverty line.
In a recent interview, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth highlighted the steps her service is undertaking to close the child care gap. Currently, 11,000 military children are waiting for child care. The Army, like the Air Force, is investing in building more centers.
While most active-duty military installations in the United States and overseas have CDCs that provide price-tiered child care based on rank, these facilities often do not have the capacity to support a base's entire population. Those not fortunate enough to get a seat for their child in the CDC are forced to shop for child care locally, facing rates that are dictated by supply and demand, not income.
This puts stateside service members whose base pay does not consider locality costs at a sharp disadvantage and at considerable risk of simply being priced out. Families can find themselves caught in a proverbial "Catch-22" to make ends meet, forced to pursue counterproductive alternatives, like a spouse abandoning a desire to work outside the home to curb child care costs, leading to the unintended effect of reducing the family's overall earning potential and financial position. There can also be an overreliance on extended family members to fill the gap, which, in time, may lead to tensions at home. In the case of dual-military families, the situation can be even more perilous as both service members have no choice but to work. These factors influence the health of the family unit, which can have a negative impact on a service member's readiness and overall mission success.
A lack of affordable and consistent child care can lead to a myriad of mission-impacting problems. Issues such as consistent tardiness to morning physical training sessions or other mandatory formations can be the result of child care providers who do not offer the same flexible hours as CDCs. This can cause negative effects to a service member's career and overall mental health. There can also be a disconnect between civilian and military work cycles, which causes complications for troops who work in operations centers, where shift work may extend past what are considered normal working hours. This leaves the service member constantly juggling private child care and other "aftercare" arrangements. The added stress takes the focus off the mission. The imbalance between child care cost and availability and the static demands of work can cause troops to depart the service prematurely to avoid added stress to family and career.
The Department of Defense has taken steps to fill the gap. A 2021 Government Accountability Office report indicated that the DoD spent $90 million to subsidize child care costs for care at non-CDC providers in 2019. While a positive "helping hand," these subsidies may not result in "CDC-like" costs, forcing service members to pay more out of pocket than their CDC cohorts. These child care subsidies are also not universally accepted by all local child care providers, forcing troops to pick from a limited pool of options, as opposed to a center that best fits the family's needs.
Finally, cost offset programs are designed to be temporary in nature, ending when a slot becomes available at the local CDC. This can cause added stress to service members and the affected child as they transition to an unfamiliar environment, often with short notice. If the service member declines the CDC slot, the family is left to bear the full cost of child care, which can cause a significant budgetary crisis.
Fully funded child care as a basic entitlement for our youngest and often most financially vulnerable military families would be a positive investment in the force. A strong network of advocacy groups already exists to support this initiative. Reaching a consensus on costs and funding is the toughest hurdle.
Companies such as Microsoft, Amazon and Citibank offer child care incentives to their employees as part of their compensation packages. While these companies' motives revolve squarely around upward trending profit margins, increased military readiness and retention of military talent are dividends that our nation cannot afford to trade on in this new era of great power competition. In order to attract and retain the best and brightest America has to offer, we must offer compensation and benefits that remove as much uncertainty as possible from the at-times tough equation of raising a military family.
Fully funded child care would be another positive step on the long and continuous journey of improved military compensation.