The vast majority of Army spouses surveyed over a year’s time during the height of the pandemic indicated the global crisis had a considerable impact on their lives, according to a new analysis by the RAND Corporation.

While those findings are not surprising and reflect the impact COVID-19 had on Americans in general, the scientifically-based surveys provide some real-time windows and drill down into specific issues Army families’ spouses were facing.

This round of surveys dealt with how the pandemic has affected spouses’ situations with employment, child care, finances, and other concerns.

In the Jan. 17 report titled “Today’s Army Spouse Panel Survey Results: Impact of COVID-19, August 2020 to May 2021,” researchers delve into the experiences of the same spouses of active duty soldiers who are surveyed at multiple points in time. It’s part of a demonstration project aimed at getting regular and more timely feedback from spouses on their experiences with military life and their perceptions of Army programs. In this case, the survey topics were specific to the pandemic.

Researchers did find some bright spots. For example, the level of financial strain decreased for many over the survey period. But other findings weren’t as encouraging. They found that 14% of unemployed spouses seeking a job didn’t have a job at any of the survey time points.

Across all three surveys, 2,307 spouses participated; 941 completed all three surveys.

Pervasive child care challenges

As of January, 2021, 81% of the respondents with children, or 1,022 spouses, reported changes in childcare because of the pandemic, which limited or shut down child care and schools in many locations.

Many schools in the civilian community were shut down even into 2021, with children learning remotely at home. Of those who reported changes in child care, 74% of spouses said their children were no longer able to attend school; 15% were no longer able to use the installation child development centers or school-aged care programs; 14% were no longer able to use family or friends for child care; and 11% were no longer able to use child care centers in the civilian community.

In adapting to those changes in child care, nearly 57% of spouses started providing more child care at home, according to the January, 2021 survey, compared with 42% doing so in 2020. In January 2021, 4.6% of spouses said their child attended the installation child development program or school-aged care full or time, compared to 12.9% in 2020.

Among the spouses who had been working in 2020, 40% said they had to manage child care and work at the same time; another 40% said they had to either reduce their work hours or quit their job because of their child care situation.

Spouse employment

As of August 2020, about one-fourth of the 1,648 spouses who participated in the survey, including those who weren’t previously working, stated they had experienced a change in employment because of the pandemic. Of those 375, about one-third said they had been working either full- or part-time before the pandemic and stopped working. But 10% started working more, with 4% increasing the hours at their job and 6% starting to work when they hadn’t before the pandemic.

Researchers looked at changes in spouses’ employment status across the three surveys. About one-third of the 941 who completed all three surveys were employed during all three points of time; with about two-thirds of that group maintaining full-time employment status. Others worked part time or were transitioning between part-time and full-time work. Among those who weren’t employed, and were looking for a job, 14% said they didn’t have a job at any of the time points from August 2020 to May 2021. Across the three surveys, 35% of spouses were out of the labor force and not looking for work.

In May 2021 68% of spouses who responded said they had experienced an employment issue in the last 12 months. Of those 1,027 spouses who responded, 41% didn’t use any employment resources and more than half used civilian rather than military resources, 54% compared to 16%. The Military Spouse Employment Partnership was the most commonly used military program, at 6.3%.

A bright spot in financial situations for some

Of the spouses who completed all three surveys, those who reported the most financial strain included spouses of enlisted soldiers, and those who were unemployed and looking for work. Many spouses reported a steep decline in financial strain from August 2020 to January 2021, but from January to May of 2021, the decreases in financial strain were slight or the level was essentially the same.

Yet when asked about how much of their financial problems were caused by the pandemic, nearly 10% said their financial issues were “very much” because of COVID-19, and about one-third said “somewhat.” Those percentages didn’t change much across the three surveys. Another one-third said their financial problems were “not at all because of COVID-19,” and about one-fourth said they hadn’t experienced any financial issues in the previous four months.

Impacts on family life

The August 2020 survey showed the two biggest impacts were the inability to take a planned vacation (70%), and a child unable to participate in extracurricular activities (56%). About 17% of spouses said their family experienced a health-related impact, and 12% said their special needs child lost access to services.

Other impacts were the current quarantining of a member of the household (11%); the inability to supervise older children out of school (9%), and the inability to afford remote/virtual school expenses (8%). These questions were answered by 1,576 participants.

Where did families get their information?

In the first survey, spouses reported having the most trust in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for information about COVID-19, with about 71% reporting “a great deal” or “a fair amount.” Social media sources garnered the least amount of trust, with 13% reporting “a great deal” or “a fair amount.” The federal government, local garrison leadership and the Army each garnered around 40% of those higher levels of trust, while network TV news came in at about 27%.

While 85% of officer spouses and 79% of enlisted spouses said they felt they had enough information about how to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19, a “substantial minority” said they didn’t know if they had enough information, researchers said.

Overall, these surveys “proved to be a useful tool for Army leadership to gather timely information from spouses, track important spouse outcomes over time, and inform Army senior leader decision making,” the researchers concluded.

Surveys about various topics “are currently being fielded three times a year, and additional reports are planned to detail results of those surveys in a timely manner,” said RAND spokeswoman Leah Polk.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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