Child care for US military deemed good but tough to find and afford, report shows
Stars and Stripes February 3, 2023
The Defense Department is doing a good job offering quality child care options for military families, but accessibility and affordability remain challenges, a recent government watchdog agency report found.
Waitlists for on-base child care continue to be a pressure point for military families, and some, especially those of lower-ranking service members, are troubled by cost, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday.
“When on-base child care was unavailable, families needed to use community-based, civilian child care centers, which can be more expensive than on-base care, even with fee assistance,” according to the report, which included interviews with military family association representatives.
That pinch is evident across military communities worldwide, potentially affecting family readiness and hurting military spouses who want to work.
For example, DOD child care centers in the Kaiserslautern Military Community in Germany were managing to handle only about 65% of demand in September, officials told Stars and Stripes at the time. That was due to chronic staffing shortages.
About 440 children were then on the waiting list at Army and Air Force care centers in the community. That figure was nearly identical to the tally four years earlier, reflecting a persistent backlog, the Stars and Stripes report found.
The 2021 Military Family Lifestyle Survey by Blue Star Families found that 20% of active-duty spouse respondents who were unemployed but wanted or needed to work cited child care unavailability as an impediment to taking a job, and 34% said child care was too expensive, according to the study released in March 2022.
DOD officials acknowledge challenges to meeting demand in some locations, according to the GAO report. Reasons include shortfalls in staffing and capacity.
To address them, the Pentagon is building more Child Development Centers, starting nationwide recruiting for workers and expanding options for off-base care, the report stated.
DOD spent more than $1 billion on child care programs in fiscal year 2021, the GAO said.
About 76,700 children were enrolled in DOD child care programs as of September 2021. And the agency was offering fee assistance for the care of about 25,800 children of service members as of March 2022, the GAO said.
Unlike at most civilian child care centers, meeting national accreditation standards is required for on-site development centers, school-age care programs and a majority of off-site child care providers.
The Defense Department also does a good job ensuring training of child care employees, inspecting care centers and implementing quality educational programming, the report found.
However, the report cited a lack of studies pertaining to the effectiveness of DOD child care programming on the development and learning of young children.
DOD did not plan to evaluate its child care program and instead will focus resources “on meeting child care needs, including recruiting and retaining staff,” the GAO said.