A National Security Issue: Child Care Increasingly a Challenge for Military Families - Early Learning Nation

A National Security Issue: Child Care Increasingly a Challenge for Military Families

9000 Children in Military Families on Waitlist

The child care crisis in the United States—which affects families’ ability to find affordable, accessible, quality options—now has growing national security implications, too.

A nationwide shortage of qualified workers has affected the U.S. Department of Defense, which is the largest child care provider in the country, and that has meant that an estimated 9,000 children in military families have been placed on wait lists for classroom spots.

Finding and hiring qualified workers is a major challenge, Francisco Jamison, chief of military programs and strategy at Child Care Aware of America, said in a recent interview.

“The pool of labor has shrunk, so we are finding lots of child care deserts where that is a direct reflection of not having enough child care staff, and that is where we are, specifically in the military, on-post now more than ever,” he said.

A February report by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found staffing shortages at a majority of child care centers.

“As a mom and a new grandma, I know it takes a village to raise a child and that our military members need high-quality, affordable child care for their young ones. By boosting training and recruitment efforts, this bipartisan bill will ensure military kids are safe and loved while their parents diligently train and prepare to protect our nation.” — Senator Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, co-sponsor with Senator Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, of the Expanding Access to Child Care for Military Families Act. The bill awaits action in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The issue is especially acute in metropolitan areas with large military populations, such as Norfolk, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and San Diego, which alone saw approximately 2,600 children from military families on waitlists in December.

The issue is also felt in less populous areas. In response to the difficulty in finding enough child care providers in some areas, the Pentagon created a supplemental program called Military Child Care in Your Neighborhood, to increase access for military families.

Yet staffing remains a hurdle, even for the Pentagon, which oversees child care programs with more than 200,000 children under their purview.

The COVID-19 pandemic increased the difficulty of finding child care workers, Jamison added. And though the federal government spent $24 billion to help support child care facilities, funding expired in September, leading to a so-called “child care cliff” that some states stepped in to avert.

Long gone are the days that 70 job applicants might vie for a child care job paying $12 per hour, Jamison said, so the Pentagon responded by increasing salaries, though maybe not enough to compete with larger employers.

“That same $17-, $18-, $20-an-hour job is also being offered at Target down the street,” Jamison said.

The trend of child care centers losing employees to large retailers has increasingly become evident across the United States.

Another challenge to recruiting qualified child care workers is the increasingly common option for remote work, Jamison added, a trend that has put pressure on other businesses such as restaurants.

A National Security Issue: Related Effects for Military Families

The scarcity of affordable child care adds another challenge for military families: Spouses looking for work.

“We have so many military spouses out there who are now more than ever educated, with post-secondary education, college degree, master degree—and they are not able to find employment in their area that they went to school for,” Jamison said.

That becomes a military readiness issue when families factor that into their decision whether or not to reenlist, he added.

“We have data that shows that it’s becoming those two factors — child care and spouse employment are now, more than ever, becoming one of the things that service members are considering before they reup. That’s a national security issue. We have to figure out a way to tackle both of those topics in order to ensure we have the same fighting force that we have for the past hundreds of years.”

Military families identified spouse employment and child care among their top concerns, according to a 2022 survey by Blue Star Families.

In a study conducted in 2023, Child Care America found a high cost of child care across the country:

  • In 45 states plus Washington, D.C., the average annual price of child care for two children in a center exceeded annual mortgage payments by up to 64 percent.
  • In all 50 states, the price of center-based care for two children exceeded average annual rent payments by 25 percent to more than 100 percent.
  • In 39 states plus the District of Columbia, the average annual price of child care for an infant in a center exceeded annual, in-state university tuition by a range of 1 percent to more than 100 percent.

The study also found that it would cost between 59 percent to more than 100 percent of a child care professional’s average annual salary of $30,360 to put two children in center-based care.

A Model for the Nation

Jamison praised the U.S. military’s child care system and its multifaceted approach to improve the quality of options for its members “a model for the nation.”

He also lauded its efforts to add programs and specialists to care for children with special needs. “That’s an admirable thing,” Jamison added. “It’s just something that I would advocate to continue to grow because we’re going to continue to see that number escalate over the next decade.”

A self-described “military brat,” Jamison said he grew up in the Army child care system and can commiserate with what enlisted men and women are going through.

“I understand how different and difficult the military lifestyle can be, because you’re talking about families that are going to move on average, eight times in a 20-year span, which is not normal for their civilian counterparts, children who are going to change schools four, five or six times in a K-through–12 period, [and] not having that familial support around you when you are wherever your newest location is,” he said.

A Bill to Address Child Care for Military Families

Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have taken notice.

In April, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, sponsored the Expanding Access to Child Care for Military Families Act.

“Access to affordable, reliable child care is vital to our workforce, families and the overall economic development of our communities,” Shaheen said in a statement. “Right now, too many military families, including those in New Hampshire, face unique challenges in accessing high-quality, affordable child care due to frequent moves and new school enrollments for their children.”

Ernst added, “As a mom and a new grandma, I know it takes a village to raise a child and that our military members need high-quality, affordable child care for their young ones. By boosting training and recruitment efforts, this bipartisan bill will ensure military kids are safe and loved while their parents diligently train and prepare to protect our nation.”

The proposed legislation would direct the Defense Department to develop a program to train child care providers, provide career development opportunities and increase available slots across the country with the goal of strengthening the child care sector across the country.

The bill now awaits action in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Making Child Care a Nonpartisan Priority

Jamison argued that solutions to the child care crisis need to be a nonpartisan issue — and one in which everyone affected has a seat at the table. The perspectives of military officials to spouses, care center owners and child care professionals should be considered “to make sure that all angles are looked at.”

“We, as a society, as a country, have to decide that there are certain things that are just going to be above the fray, and child care, like education for our young people, has to be nonpartisan,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter what color shirt you wear, what state you live in, we should want better for our kids, and work toward that as a country.”

Bruno J. Navarro is a writer, editor and photographer who has covered business, technology, courts and education. His work has appeared in CNBC, Women's Wear Daily, NBC News, The Associated Press, Nylon and The Arizona Republic. Originally from Queens, New York, he currently lives in New Jersey.

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