Military Families Are Still Facing the Same Issues, Year After Year

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(Erick Requadt/DVIDS)

Results released today from an annual Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey show that feelings about what’s important in military life haven’t really changed year over year.

The survey, now its tenth year, was conducted between May and June of 2019 by Blue Star Families and Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) and includes responses from more than 11,000 people. The majority of the respondents were between the ages of 25 and 44, with 67% being spouses, and 24% service members. Of the service member respondents, 51% were senior enlisted.

Spouses and service members surveyed almost agree on what’s most important. Not surprisingly, time away from family, education for military kids, family stability and lack of control over military career are top issues for both groups. But what is surprising, perhaps, is the division between the two over spouse employment.

Top Military Spouse Issue: Employment

Military spouses have been beating the drum on spouse employment issues for years, so it’s pretty easy to understand why 48% of them placed it as the top military family issue. But for service members it was nowhere near the top, sitting instead for that group as the sixth highest ranked issue facing military families.

Instead, the majority of service members considered the amount of time spent away from family to be the most important.

Military family stability was a top concern among military spouses and service members, and the top issues affecting this stability were finances, relocation and isolation. And military spouse employment plays a role in all of them, highlighted by the 36% of military spouses who said that the inability to reliably earn two incomes is a stressor. Of the spouses who participated in the survey, 76% were employed and 77% of those were underemployed.

The community as a whole wants flexible work, whether that be in the form of remote work or simply a flexible schedule, one Navy spouse respondent said, “As a mid-career professional spouse, I’m dismayed by the lack of flexible and CHALLENGING career opportunities available.” And the number one barrier to spouse employment is the day-to-day job demands of their service members. The last-minute changes to schedules such as the 0430 call for a urinalysis that forces a spouse to change everything about their day.

Jessica Strong, the survey’s senior researcher, explained that each person responds to the survey from their own perspective. “Spouses are more directly impacted by unemployment and underemployment, so it follows that military spouse under- and unemployment is more top-of-mind for them.”

“It's important to note that the 2018 Military Family Lifestyle Survey found that spouse employment was the top way both service members and spouses identified to improve a sense of belonging to their local civilian communities,” she pointed out.

Shared Stressors: Family, Finances and Education

Time away from family has been a top issue among spouse and service members alike for the past few years. Over one-third of the survey respondents experienced six or more months of separation in the last 18 months.

EFMP families who participated in the survey shared some specific feedback as well. Almost half of them, 48%, find relocation to be their top stressor. And when it comes time for medical care, 40% said they can’t receive a referral, can’t find a provider and can’t be seen in a reasonable amount of time and 9% reported that they went without care or bypassed the system completely. Both of those topics are concerns that should be addressed by the EFM program.

Another overarching issue with military families is financial readiness, which causes stress to 63% of families. Issues that contribute to that financial stress include out-of-pocket housing and relocation costs, childcare costs, spouse under- or unemployment and credit card debt.

Change over The Past Ten Years

Since Blue Star Families started fielding the survey a decade ago, the military community has seen some major cultural shifts. But results show that the issues the community sees as important remain largely the same.

In 2009, the first year of the survey, the top issue was military pay and benefits. It returned as the top issue five times between the first release and today. Similarly, “time away from family,” also identified as “operational tempo,” has also been a repeat topic.

“When time away from family was ranked as a top-five issue of concern for both military spouses and service members it signaled that families weren't just concerned with deployments or high operational tempo, but they were concerned with a combination of work demands that required families to be frequently separated whether that be for a training, deployment, long work hours, etc.,” Strong said.

“Because military families are ultimately American families, they want to be able to provide for their families and provide an environment that supports stability and some level of certainty. However, those expectations are fundamentally at odds with many elements of the current defense personnel system and we see that tension represented in our data.”

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