The results of a new survey of military and veterans and spouses — including details on financial difficulties — raise concerns about the future of the military, said the executive director of the organization that conducted the survey.
Fewer military, veterans and spouses are likely to recommend military service, according to the findings, and the reasons are related to their own well-being, said Shannon Razsadin, president and executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network.
“At the end of the day, families are having a hard time making ends meet, and that’s affecting their overall well-being,” she said. “We see the connection between well-being and loneliness, well-being and housing, well-being and food security. When you layer that on top of the fact that fewer people are likely to recommend military service, it paints a very clear picture of concern related to the future of the all-volunteer force.”
This is the fourth survey fielded by the organization, generally every two years. This time, the biggest surprise, said Razsadin, was the drop in the percentage of survey respondents who said they would recommend military life – from 74.5% in 2019 to 62.9% in 2021.
The online Military Family Support Programming Survey was fielded from Oct. 4 to Dec. 15, 2021, with 8,638 participating. The largest group of respondents was spouses of active duty members, at 44%, followed by active duty members, at 14%. Nearly 60% of the respondents overall were between the ages of 25 and 39.
“This was troubling for us,” Razsadin said. “It was really the fact that families do not feel like military life lines up with family life.”
Based on their answers, the reasons were related to frequent separations, and the fact that military life is not conducive to family life, she added, noting that the fact that the survey was conducted on the heels of the U.S. military’s exit from Afghanistan in 2021 didn’t show up in the findings, however.
In general, over the years, a number of military children have followed in their parents’ footsteps, but there are indications those trends were waning, with other surveys finding that military parents are increasingly unlikely to recommend service to their children. But a recent survey of military teens found that 65 percent still want to serve in the military.
The MFAN report also pointed to a root cause of many problems that military families have understood for years: the military move. In 2021, those who had recently experienced a permanent change of station reported negative or very negative experiences with the reimbursement of moving costs, at 40%; effects on spouse employment, at 38%; and change in cost of living, at 56%. In the future, the organization will further look at these negative experiences, researchers stated.
Burden of housing costs
The survey provided more data on the impact of rising housing costs. Nearly half, 45%, of currently serving families experienced a severe housing burden, spending more than 50% of the household income on housing costs, such as mortgage or rent and utilities. That compares to 20% of veteran and retiree families.
During an MFAN panel discussion of the results, Marine Corps wife Hana Romer said she and her husband are making rent and mortgage payments now, in order to secure housing when they move from Monterey, California, to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. They’re set to PCS in December, and were being outbid by cash offers while house hunting in North Carolina. So they made the decision to build a house — and to lock in their interest rate in March.
Meanwhile, in Monterey, some families who arrived in June were still living in hotels by mid-July, waiting for housing, she said.
The survey found that the situation of the local housing market ranked among the top five reasons for living on base in 2021, but wasn’t noted in previous years’ surveys. In 2021, and continuing into 2022, military families have been affected by skyrocketing housing prices. For those who lived off base, the poor condition of military housing has been the top reason in the surveys since 2019, but the lack of available military housing has also consistently been among the top reasons.
There was a bright spot regarding privatized military housing, Razsadin said. Residents are seeing better responsiveness on repair issues from their housing companies. But the results show issues with the military commands’ responsiveness to military privatized housing issues. Legislation enacted in the last two years has aimed to require better response from housing companies, and improve the conditions, as well as improve oversight of this housing by the military.
Most of those who lived in privatized housing, 64%, said the condition of their housing is unchanged. But 28% said conditions have gotten better; 8% said they have gotten worse.
The survey this year asked about total household income. Of the currently serving military families who participated, 44% have a combined household income of between $25,000 and $75,000, before taxes. That includes Basic Allowance for Housing.
Hunger and food insecurity are more common in families that experience high stress due to finances, according to the findings.
In 2021, one in six, or 16.6%, of military and veteran families were experiencing food insecurity or hunger, compared to about 15% in 2017. The highest frequency of those experiencing food insecurity was among currently serving, including Guard and Reserve families, at 18.4%, Razsadin said. In addition, 9.6% of the population were experiencing very low food security or hunger, she said.
Of those who had problems with food insecurity, 96% used federal assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and 70% of those said they found those programs helpful.
Overall, veteran and currently-serving military families have trouble saving money. In veteran families, 38% have less than $500 in emergency savings. In currently serving military families, 22 percent have less than $500 in emergency savings. For military retiree families, 17% have less than $500 in emergency savings. Enlisted families were most likely to have low or no emergency funds.
At the other end of the spectrum, 29% of currently serving families; 34% of military retiree families; and 21% of veteran families reported having $10,000 or more in emergency savings funds.
The most significant hurdle reported in saving money was income, but respondents also cited increased cost of living and inflation.
“This survey was fielded when some of the COVID protections were still in place, before this massive inflation,” Razsadin said. “It’s a really big concern of ours. We’re hearing from families, especially families overseas right now, about major problems making ends meet, with issues of gas prices and COLA changes, and things like that.”
*Increase the availability of health care and mental health appointments. “Addressing this issue requires a close look at the reimbursement rates to ensure that community-based providers are appropriately compensated for their time, in a way that is commensurate with the civilian community,” they wrote.
*Increase the availability of child care.
*Right-size Basic Allowance for Housing to decrease the housing cost burden on military families.
*Review the pay structure. With the challenges of frequents moves, military spouse unemployment and child care, many military families must make ends meet on the service member’s pay alone. “These data show that relying on a single income to sustain the household is problematic for many,” the researchers stated.
In a recently released report detailing plans to address food insecurity in the military and longer-term economic security, Defense officials outlined some steps such as increasing child care options, working to increase employment opportunities for spouses, and reviewing the housing allowance and other allowances.
In addition, DoD is working with the White House to initiate the 14th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation (QRMC) later this year.
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.