The Military Spouse Employment Act and Childcare Assistance

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I am writing this letter to highlight our Marine Corps family struggle and to urge the Marine Corps to prioritize and fight to support our Military Families. The Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2015, conducted a study in which military spouse unemployment rates are 18 percent, compared to the national average of 4.4 percent. That does not account for the largest problem which is underemployment, “working at a position that's not commensurate with levels of experience or education, or employed in a field different from the one in which they received formal education, or earning less than 20 percent of the average of their peers with the same major or occupation.”[1] The Military Officers Association of America and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University announced the results of a national study focused on military spouse employment, which found that 90 percent of female spouses reported being underemployed or overqualified for the positions they hold. Military spouses also earn 38 percent less than their civilian counterparts, while also being 30 percent more likely to be unemployed, the report stated. [2] This can be for a variety of reasons including but not limited to: frequent moves, limited employment opportunities where military members are stationed, employer perceptions about military spouses due to their transient nature or licensing issues. More than 55 percent of respondents indicated they “need” to work while 90 percent stated they “want” to work.

One of the largest hindrances for employment for anyone in this country is the cost of childcare. The average cost of center-based day care for infants is around $10,468 per year. However, for a military spouse once they overcome the first hurdle of obtaining employment, below their education and experience level, and accepts the 20% pay cut compared to their non-military spouse peers, they now have to find “affordable” flexible childcare in a new area.  That means researching and interviewing facilities with availability, filling out several forms, doctors visits, finding at least two local emergency contacts with a back up sitter to handle pick ups and drop offs if you get stuck at work or kids are sick and paying a deposit along with the first months rate. This cycle continues at a frequency rate on average of every 3 years. 

Geographic location presents an additional challenge to obtaining “affordable” flexible childcare; so now let’s narrow the focal point of discussion to that of the State of Hawaii. Hawaii is one of the least affordable states for childcare in the United States (and ranks third highest behind the District of Columbia and New York respectfully), with isle parents paying, on average, 44 percent more for an infant in a child-care center than they would for tuition at the University of Hawaii, according to a new report. The study by the nonprofit Child Care Aware of America ranked Hawaii eighth among the 10 least affordable states, with Oregon and New York topping the list[3]. In Hawaii, single parents pay 45.6% of their income for infant center care. Married parents of 2 children living at the poverty line pay 79.2% of their household income for center-based child-care.[4]

The average cost of infant care, in a childcare center in Oahu, Hawaii, was $16,020 in 2015[5]. Using a generalized salary an “average” military family, an E-5 with over 6 years time in service with two children, has a yearly salary BEFORE taxes of $35,100 a year, which equates to a take home salary about $1,350.00 biweekly. Once groceries, car payment, insurance, cable, cell phone and incidentals are subtracted from that amount, the family is left with very little to nothing to put towards other household living expenses, which is why most spouses feel the need to work.

Adding in a personal perspective, I have been a military spouse for over 7 years. We have moved 9 times in the last 8 years. I have invented and reinvented myself and my legal career over and over with excitement, optimism and a healthy dose of fear. When our family was reassigned to the island I was worried about employment. Realistically we were not going to be here long enough to take the bar and spend the $5,000 in preparation costs. So I needed to think creatively about how I could become Semper Gumby and fit into this new duty station. I was able to carry over my law firm I started over 4 years ago due to a contract I found in Hawaii that needed immediate attention. In anticipation and preparation I placed our children on the CDC waitlist nine months prior to arriving on island. When we arrived we were advised that the waitlist for the on-base child development center was and is currently on a freeze. Despite the fact that we have been on the waitlist for almost a year at this point with no anticipated date of service for our two children the Resource and Referral agency on base had no additional information or assistance to offer. I contacted Child Care Aware and they conducted a NACCRRA search, which revealed that there were NO child-care centers with current availability. We relentlessly toured child-care center after center and were dismayed by the absence of a formalized early learning educational curriculum and facilities that were less-than structurally adequate. We were able to find one (1) program that met the USMC Child Care Aware standards and that had the earliest availability. The monthly charges per child were addressed as follows:

(0-12 mos)    $1,930/month

(12-18 mos)  $1,895/month

(18-24 mos)  $1,865/month

(2-3 years)    $1,785/month

(3-5 years)    $1,695/month

(All rates are before 4.712% tax and lunch costs)

Addressing the figures above, for a military spouse (who is already underemployed making at least 20% less than their counterpart) with a family of two children to afford child-care, they would have to make $3,796 after taxes or around $60,000 a year. This income is 3 times the amount a spouse, at minimum wage income, would make. 

The Military Child Care Act of 1989 (MCCA) was a pivotal moment for military child-care. Congress passed the MCCA in response to great concern over the lack of quality and accessibility of child care for military families. A 1982 report (Military Child Care Programs: Progress Made, More Needed) from the Government Accounting Office (GAO) to the Secretary of Defense revealed that many DoD child care programs failed to meet the minimum fire and safety codes, there was a lack of effective inspection systems, little or few consequences for deficiencies or noncompliance, no oversight for CD homes, and staff training and professional expectations were subpar. Families remained on wait lists for unreasonably long periods of time, and parent fees were disproportionately too high, which made child care virtually inaccessible for many military families. In 1986, the Presidio Army base was the subject of child abuse allegations, which spurred Congressional hearings and ultimately led to the MCCA. The MCCA became the catalyst for a complete transformation of military child care, and focused on improving the quality, affordability, and accessibility of military child care.  However, each year funding is being cut and specifically the Marine Corps base Child Development Centers are disappearing. 

Child Care Aware of America, a non-profit, recognized the disparity and tried to assist. The organization’s 2018 policy agenda calls on Congress to pass the Child Care for Working Families Act of 2017, provide at least a $1.4 billion increase to Child Care and Development Block Grants (CCDBG) over 2018 levels, and strengthen quality standards for care provided under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. These policy recommendations follow Child Care Aware of America’s release of national and county-level data showing that child-care is unaffordable in all 50 states[6] not funded enough to lower the costs down to reflect an affordable option. We should not be penalizing our military spouses for wanting to continue their employment and better themselves and their families’ lives. So many initiatives are geared to employing them, but not supporting that effort. It is not just costing our families money it's costing the U.S. economy — to the tune of about $710 million to $1 billion a year, according to a new report commissioned by the nonprofit Blue Star Families.[7]

This is also not taking into the consideration the fact that for many military spouses they are solo parenting in a foreign area, sometimes a foreign country. So without reliable childcare, with flexible hours and back up sitters for sick children employment is not a reality. Most Marine Corps bases have cut part-time care and hourly care leaving a spouse, with a deployed Marine, at a new duty station, taking children to personal wellness visits, such as gynecologist’s appointments and more. Our families are asking why? Why are other branches able to support facilities with availability, CDC date nights, hourly care, and provide childcare for educational improvement events like LINKS or Transitional Readiness classes? The families are not asking for a handout and are willing to pay a reasonable rate for care. Help us facilitate this as an option.

The Senate currently is considering the “The Military Spouse Employment Act of 2018” which among many things would instruct the Defense Department to examine ways to increase the number of child care providers and to assess whether each duty station is allotted the right number of child-care subsidies for families that request them. The Defense Department would be required to allow base officials to issue interim or provisional authorization to hire child development center staff while the formal vetting process is pursued. DoD’s tightened background-check process has led to sluggish hiring in recent years, reducing the capacity of the centers.

For years we have been told to do more with less and we have. Our unit funds have been cut by 75%, programs and moral events have been cancelled, we have lost almost all civilian Family Readiness Officers putting the burden and responsibility on a collateral duty for a Marine. The spouses have stepped up and tried to fill in the gaps but, at the end of the day, it is our families that suffer and in the end the Marine Corps. In this challenging environment, a Marine cannot sustain a successful career while maintaining a nurturing home life if the Marine Corps does not actively assist and support their family members. It is in the best interest of the Marine Corps to retain the best-of-the-best. A Marine can continue to perform at an elite level with the comfort of knowing his family is supported at home; but when the organization has developed a culture that stops supporting the family home front this forces our Marines to choose supporting family over service. Ultimately, the Service will continue to struggle in retaining the highly skilled and trained individuals it has fought so hard to retain. Please start prioritizing and funding our family programs again and enable us to continue to support our families so that our proud and fearless fighting men and women can focus on their jobs to ensure that this great nation remains safe, secure and our liberties free from our adversaries and their families have the opportunity and choice on continuing their service through employment, education, or other means.   

Thank you for your time and consideration regarding this matter. I know the Marine Corps and our Nation has many demands placed on it. However, making our military members and families a priority will in the end only benefit us all.


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