The Realities of Military Spouse Unemployment: Lack of Childcare

Written by Tessarose Brown


Military spouse unemployment is a prevalent issue that can negatively impact the home life and mission readiness of service members. So, why is military spouse unemployment still an issue that over 20% of military spouses1 experience? When asked, most military spouses attribute the answer to: lack of childcare.

When I arrived at our first duty station with my husband and daughter, I really did not think I would have trouble finding a job given my career field, my previous experience, and education — I was right. Finding a job was easy for me. What I struggled with — and what ultimately led to me quitting my new job — was my issue with finding adequate and affordable childcare. This article will discuss more on how childcare, or lack thereof, impacts military spouses like me and contributes to the military spouse unemployment rate.


Military Childcare is Often Unavailable

Nearly every installation in the armed forces has military childcare facilities. These facilities are intended to make military childcare accessible and affordable. Yet, the reality is that waitlists for military childcare are often months to years long because Child Development Programs are limited in how many families they can accommodate. Spaces in these military childcare facilities are given out based on three priority levels, each with their own sub priority levels:

  • Priority 1A: Child Development Program Staff
  • Priority 1B: Single/dual military member(s) and activity duty service members with a full-time working spouse
  • Priority 1C: Active duty service member with a part-time working spouse or employment-seeking spouse
  • Priority 1D: Active duty service member with a spouse enrolled full-time in a post secondary institution
  • Priority 2: Single/dual Department of Defense Civilians with a full-time working spouse
  • Priority 3: Space Available (Active duty Coast Guard, Reserve, DoD employee, Contractor, Retirees, other Federal Employees)

My family fell under Priority 1C. I had my daughter added to the waitlist for childcare on post as soon as I got our official orders, and over a year later, she still didn’t have a spot. That is until I accepted a job as a direct care staff, which moved our priority level up.


Childcare is Unaffordable

In reality, childcare has become an expense that just doesn’t make sense for many military families. One third of military spouses say that the reason they are not working is due to the cost of childcare.2 According to Child Care Aware of America, the average cost of childcare (for one child) is over $10,000 per year.2 Even with the Department of Defense’s amazing Child Development Program (CDP) that bases its fees on total family income, the cost of military childcare is one that military spouses and their service members have to consider is worth paying in order to return to the workforce.

To put the cost of childcare for military families into perspective, take my family, for example. My husband is on active duty and an E-4. I just started working full-time making roughly $2,900 per month. Our total family income puts us at Category 7 ($80,001 – $90,000 per year). My family pays $604 per month ($7,248 per year) for full-time care for my daughter.

While this will eventually be manageable, we are still reeling financially from our previous debt before entering the military and new debt incurred from our PCS move to our current installation, where I have recently been without a job for the past year.

Those not in the military life may not be aware that nearly every PCS move incurs personal costs for military families — a cost that sometimes takes months to be reimbursed, if at all. This doesn’t even include the typical costs of moving, such as deposits, first month’s rent, and household necessities. It personally cost us $2,000 to move to our first duty station. For a lower enlisted family on one income, this personal debt — in addition to the rising costs of goods and gas — can be crippling.

$604 per month is manageable now, but what if we want to have another child? The cost of full-time care for a second child would be an additional $514 per month, putting my total monthly cost for childcare at $1,118. That’s more than many people’s mortgages.

Our total monthly childcare cost will just continue to increase as my husband ranks up. At this point, I would be weighing the pros and cons of working full-time since a little under half of my paycheck would be going directly to childcare. Many spouses I know have said it’s just not worth it. The harsh reality is that some military spouses have to choose between growing their family or working.


Change Is Coming

A recent memorandum from the Secretary of Defense states that “We must continue to push hard to provide even more affordable child care options for military families.”3 The memorandum calls for the following changes:

  • Make significant improvements in Child Development Program facilities and infrastructure to further expand our capacity to provide quality childcare.
  • Standardize a minimum 50 percent employee discount for the first child of our CDP direct-care workers to help attract more talented staff and to increase capacity. This will take effect in October 2022.
  • Improve access to child care programs and resources such as Military Child Care in Your Neighborhood and expand the in-home child care fee assistance pilot program to additional states to provide more options to military families.


No Military Family Left Behind

Military spouse unemployment is an ongoing problem that most people have little to no insight into — unless you’re in the military, of course. The reality is that childcare is the number one issue contributing to the military spouse unemployment rate. Spouses are having to choose between their careers and caring for or growing their families because quality and affordable childcare is so inaccessible.

To all the military spouses out there who are currently under-employed or unemployed, I hope this article sheds light on what we go through each and every day to support our service members as they serve our country.

The Armed Services (ASYMCA) understands the complexities and real-life struggles that many military families face. Their programs and services ensure that no military family is left behind.

Help support military families by donating to the ASYMCA today.


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This article is part of a three-part series by writer and military spouse, Tessarose B., highlighting the realities of military spouse unemployment. You can read Part 1 here.