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Cultural wars impacting U.S. Defense spending bill
02:42 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Although the House’s latest defense bill has come under fire for its controversial social policy amendments, the crucial annual legislation also has a multitude of provisions to help service members and their families who are struggling financially.

The proposed measures, which build on efforts contained in bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act packages of recent years, include a hefty pay raise, additional employment help for military spouses and more assistance for housing and child care.

Plus, President Joe Biden announced last month a set of executive actions aimed at making it easier for military spouses to find and hold onto jobs, an important component of enhancing families’ economic security.

The support is desperately needed, say advocates for the nation’s more than 1.3 million active-duty members and their more than 1.5 million family members. Many in the military are having a tough time affording the steep jumps in housing costs, food prices and child care, among other essentials.

What’s more, improving financial security is key to recruitment and retention efforts during a period when the military is struggling to attract new members, advocates note.

Financial concerns

Money matters weigh heavily on many active-duty military families, according to the latest survey from Blue Star Families, which supports service members, veterans and their families. Of the top five issues in 2022, three of them were centered on finances and a fourth primarily concerned money.

The most prevalent concern: Some 48% of active-duty military families named spouse employment in 2022, up from 43% the prior year. It topped the share who said the amount of time away from family, which 45% listed last year.

Some 40% named military pay, up from 24% in 2021. And 40% also said the basic allowance for housing and off-base housing concerns were a top issue last year, the first time the question was asked.

Issues with relocation and permanent change of station, which 37% listed, rounded out the top five. This primarily involves finances associated with the move, said Jessica Strong, senior director of applied research at Blue Star Families.

“It came through loud and clear that families are very concerned about their financial stability,” she said, noting that more than a quarter responded that they were finding it difficult to get by or were just getting by.

Employment among military spouses has long been a problem, said Kelly Hruska, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association. Frequent relocations, which typically happen every two to four years, make it hard for spouses to find and keep jobs. At the same time, most military families – like their civilian counterparts – need two incomes to stay afloat.

The unemployment rate among military spouses was 21% last year and has not changed significantly for the past decade, according to the White House.

Housing is also a major concern, said Ryan Gallucci, executive director of the Washington, DC, office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or VFW, which also supports those on active duty. Though service members receive a basic allowance for housing, it has not kept up with the market.

That’s partially because Congress slowed the annual growth of the benefit as part of the Budget Control Act of 2015, providing service members with only 95% of the estimated cost of housing, he said. That has taken a toll over the years.

“Now we’re seeing the long-term ramifications of that short-sighted budget decision,” he said, noting that the Covid-19 pandemic-fueled surge in the cost of buying or renting a home has exacerbated the problem.

Families had to shell out $400 a month over their allowance for non-military housing, according to a Blue Star Families survey conducted last year. Many said they couldn’t find options within the benefit amount, and military housing often isn’t ready when families are transferring so they have to pay for temporary accommodations out of their pockets.

And, as in the civilian world, the availability and affordability of child care are problems, which also affect the ability of spouses to work.

However, those in the military were more likely to face food insecurity than their civilian counterparts, Strong said. Some 26% of enlisted service members with families said they had low or very low food security, which includes skipping meals or going hungry because they did not have enough money to buy food.

It’s important to address these issues so that they don’t distract service members from their work, Hruska said.

“If they’re worrying about their families, their heads are not with the mission,” she said. “So it’s truly a readiness issue. We want to have the most ready force in the world.”

The Department of Defense is doing more to make service members and their families aware of the benefits available to them, the agency said.

It has provided leaders with a toolkit to identify members who may be struggling and connect them with assistance. The agency created a “Resources for Financial Stress” page on the Military OneSource website. Also, it boosted funding for its commissaries to deepen the discount that military families receive to 25% when shopping for groceries.

Enhancing pay and benefits

The House and Senate each have versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2024, which starts in October. The House passed its bill earlier this month, while the Senate has started considering its legislation.

Some measures are the same, but others are different and would have to be reconciled before final passage.

One area of common ground: A 5.2% increase in basic pay, the largest in more than 20 years. It follows a 4.6% pay hike in last year’s defense package.

Other provisions contained in at least one version include more than $240 million to reduce members’ out-of-pocket housing expenses and the modification of the housing allowance calculation for junior uniformed members to more accurately assess housing costs. Last year, lawmakers increased the housing allowance by an average of 12.1%, the largest in 15 years.

Also, there are measures that would expand reimbursements to military spouses for relicensing or business costs because of transfers and reduce fees for Department of Defense-provided child care. Other provisions would allocate additional funds to build family housing and child care centers.

In last year’s package, lawmakers made the Basic Needs Allowance more generous by providing funds to ensure the household income of service members with children is at least 150% of the federal poverty line, rather than the original 130% threshold – though advocates point out the benefit has not reached many eligible families.

Some may not know about the allowance, which was created in the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, while others may not want their commanders to know of their financial situation, Strong said.

All these improvements to pay and benefits are steps in the right direction, Gallucci said.

“The objective is to make it a workplace that’ll meet your basic needs,” he said. “You’ll be able to take care of yourself. You’ll be able to take care of a family.”

The Biden administration is also seeking to bolster the economic security of military and veteran families through an executive order. Among the measures: Encouraging federal agencies to provide remote work flexibility for employees who are military spouses to enable them to keep their jobs when they must move or to collaborate between agencies to place spouses in another position in their new location.

Also, the executive order seeks to help service members pay for child care by implementing Dependent Care Flexible Savings Accounts, which allows them to set aside money pretax to pay providers, by January 1, 2024.

These measures not only help families, but they also make the military a more attractive place to work. Only 37% of active-duty family respondents were likely to recommend military service, according to the latest Blue Star Families survey.

It’s become harder for the military to recruit since candidates need to be physically fit and meet certain aptitude criteria, Gallucci said. Also, the armed services face competition from law enforcement, fire departments and other employers.

“There’s a realization that in order to encourage Americans to volunteer to join the military, the benefits package needs to take care of their families, that you can’t have service members in poverty and expect to maintain the all-volunteer force,” he said.