Active Duty Spouse Survey Shows Familiar Challenges Aren’t Letting Up

Active Duty Spouse Survey Shows Familiar Challenges Aren’t Letting Up
Photo by Airman 1st Class Mercedes Porter/Air Force

A DoD survey of nearly 12,000 active duty spouses released Feb. 9 confirmed many military families are struggling with spouse unemployment, food insecurity, a lack of accessible child care, and other familiar challenges.


The 2021 Active Duty Spouse Survey (ADSS), fielded between July and November 2021, offered few surprises, but reemphasized the importance of MOAA’s advocacy efforts in these areas, many of which are among association priorities for the 118th Congress.


The survey’s top findings include:


Spouse Employment Remains a Significant Challenge

Military spouse unemployment sits at 21% -- six times the national average. It’s been 21% or higher since 2015, and rises even higher among spouses of junior enlisted members (31%), Army spouses (25%), and racial/ethnic minority spouses (26%).


Spouses seeking employment spend, on average, 19 weeks looking for a job. For the first time, DoD polled spouses on underemployment and found military spouses are 2.9 times more likely to be underemployed than their peers.


A rare piece of good news emerged from the data, an increased number of spouses are employed within their area of education or training.  


[MARCH 8: MOAA’s Virtual Career Fair for Early Career Professionals]


PCS Moves Negatively Impact Financial Stability

This seems like common sense, but it’s important to track the impacts of PCS moves on military family financial stability. Respondents cited increased financial stress due to lost income/unemployment and unreimbursed moving expenses related to a PCS move. Of those spouses seeking employment following a PCS move, 47% reported spending more than four months finding work.


Additional stress-inducing factors cause by PCS moves included delays in housing availability, time spent coordinating with moving companies, changing schools, and the lack of availability of special medical and/or educational services at the new duty station.


Food Insecurity Affects Military Families

One in four military spouse respondents reported some level of food insecurity, with Marine Corps (28%), Army (27%), junior enlisted (45%), racial/ethnic minority (30%), and unemployed (41%) spouses reporting higher instances of food insecurity.


Food insecurity is a nationwide issue requiring complex solutions. The introduction of the basic needs allowance is a positive step forward, but work remains to ensure this support program reaches those who need it most.


[RELATED: Will These Legislative Provisions Improve Quality of Life for Military Families?]


DoD Child Care Is High-Quality, But Inaccessible

Alarmingly, 24% of respondents stated they are using civilian child care providers but not receiving military child care fee assistance. Hopefully this will be addressed by a provision in the FY 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (Section 579) requiring service secretaries to promote awareness of military child care assistance programs. The primary reason for unemployment cited by spouses was the inability to access child care.


Spouses’ Satisfaction With Military Life Is Dropping

The percentage of spouses satisfied with military life has steadily declined since 2012. In the 2021 survey, 22% of respondents reported being dissatisfied, with junior enlisted (27%), unemployed (26%), and dual military (26%) spouses citing higher rates. Additionally, only 54% of respondents think their servicemember should stay on active duty.


This biennial DoD survey provides insights on the experiences and attitudes of active duty spouses, and though the results are unsurprising to those living the lifestyle, they help paint a picture of the true challenges and hardships military spouses face. It falls on our shoulders, as advocates and grassroots supporters, to educate lawmakers and urge them to support policies that improve military quality of life.


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About the Author

Jen Goodale
Jen Goodale

Goodale is MOAA's Director of Government Relations for Military Family and Survivor Policy.