Did you blink and miss the 2022 Military Family Caucus Summit? You are not alone. The annual Summit returned to its in-person format and took place on Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington on August 17th. BLUF (military speak for “bottom line up front”): DOD policies are not keeping up with the issues faced by military families.
“As prices continue to increase, and just the reality of rents increasing housing shortages, that it’s, it’s a big issue for military families,” said Representative Cathy McMorris Rogers (R-Wa.). “That has added then to the sense of food insecurity…budgets are being stretched thin.”
The Congressional Military Family Caucus was founded in 2009 by Representatives McMorris Rodgers and Sanford D. Bishop, Jr. (D-Ga.) to raise awareness about the issues faced by military families. The annual caucus summit covers topics that are relevant to military families at that moment in time, including education, the Exceptional Family Member Program, PCSing, child care, health care, housing, spouse employment and more. Although most of the panelists were experts based out of McMorris Rodgers’ home district in eastern Washington state, the local issues they highlighted are representative of those expressed by military families across the country.
Post-Pandemic Housing Issues
One topic that was addressed was housing. Unlike previous summits which focused on the poor and often dangerous privatized military family housing, this panel highlighted a scarcity of affordable housing, a lingering byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the past “you have to ‘make rank’ to get on the base [housing]. We’ve changed that,” said panelist Robert Mueller, the Housing Program Manager for Fairchild Airforce Base. As of today, Mueller cites that enlisted personnel get priority placement on waitlists, as they may not be able to afford housing on the economy.
Dr. Shanna Smith of Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN) provided insights into the national state of affairs citing that “the number one the area that respondents had negative or very negative area of perceptions was actually regarding the military command responsiveness to precise military housing issues.” On a positive note, MFAN notes that respondents reported overall satisfaction with privatized military housing company responsiveness.
Housing inventory and quality was just one problem raised, the other was the gap between BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) rates and the increasingly unaffordable housing/rental markets. COVID and the economy have created the perfect storm for highly mobile families, 60.9% of whom have reported difficulty finding affordable housing within their BAH. Those who are able, pay out of pocket to cover the overage, costing them thousands of dollars over the course of a tour.
Mueller reported that BAH calculations are done annually and take time to catch up to the reality faced by families. Mueller was grilled by McMorris Rodgers, who asked “so, when will that be done?” Mueller responded, “nine months from when the contract is awarded.”
Military families must be ready to pivot and relocate at a moment’s notice, unfortunately, bureaucracy and BAH calculations are not as flexible.
The Troubling Triad – Employment – Child Care – Food Insecurity
The Summit highlighted a myriad of problems faced by military families, many of which were interconnected. Even if military spouses can overcome 20%+ unemployment rates, those with children must be able to find affordable child care. If they can’t find either gainful employment or childcare, their family may be at risk for financial instability and food insecurity.
While child care has always been an issue for military families, the issue has been exacerbated post-pandemic. Child care panelist Brian Trimble, Executive Director of the Herzog Family Center, an Early Learning Center in Spokane, cited a nationwide loss of 30% of child care providers.
Amid this crisis, we see low wages for care workers, but high costs for families. “If we pay them the wages we are paying, you can’t afford child care for your own children,” said Olivia Burley, Washington state’s Military Spouse Liaison and spouse employment and child care panelist.
“Properly funding our teachers” was the answer child care panelist Brian Trimble gave when asked about the biggest barriers to increasing DOD child care capacity. “Nothing that’s going to make them more excited about participating in this field without massive funding and investment into them.”
The Congressional solution? Pilot programs and expansion of the child care subsidy program, Military Child Care in Your Neighborhood, designed to expand child care options are in the works. However, according to Burley, it is unlikely these solutions will be immediately felt by families.
“We demand more from you than is fair,” said Congressman Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) during his opening remarks. But the existence of the Military Family Caucus Summit is one way that Congress is working to support military families. According to Rep. McMorris Rodgers, “The goal of the caucus is to hear from the military families and then for us to take what we’ve heard and go to work on Capitol Hill on their behalf.”
Check out the Summit Recording: https://fb.watch/f7kZEcLW7i/