In 1989, the Military Child Care Act (MCCA) codified the military childcare system that exists today. This legislation was a direct response to sweeping failures across military installations that resulted in unsafe childcare facilities. The MCCA established $157 million in childcare funding (the equivalent of $356 million today), minimum safety and accreditation standards for military childcare centers, background checks for staff, and a standardized priority and fee structure. Over thirty years later, the military’s childcare system is considered a gold standard. It is safe, highly regulated, and affordable—but only if you can gain access. Military childcare is touted as a benefit for service members, but at most installations, small capacity and staffing shortages mean this benefit is fairly limited. As one Army officer with a physician spouse stated, “It’s not much of a benefit when there is no chance my child will get care.”

Childcare Needs

Since MCCA’s passage, military demographics have changed drastically. Since 1985, the number of active duty single parents in the military has increased by 67 percent, and the number of active duty dual-military families has more than doubled. In 2018, 37 percent of military families had at least one dependent child under the age of eighteen. Of those children, about 405,000 are under five years old. The proportion of female service members has more than doubled since the 1980s, and 33 percent of female service members report that childcare is their top concern. Mid-careerists are more likely to have children under five years old—childcare aged—than they were thirty years ago. Nearly one-third of military spouses who want to work report they can’t find childcare. National employment trends, along with evidence from Blue Star Families, indicate that up to 60 percent of those spouses either are employed or desire to work outside the home. Put it all together, and the demand for childcare is high.

In 2019, approximately two hundred thousand children were enrolled in some form of military childcare, including full-time childcare and school-age centers’ after-school programs for children ages six through twelve. But there were over eighteen thousand children on the wait lists, and nearly 75 percent of them were less than four years old. DoD uses a metric called the demand accommodation rate to measure childcare success, which represents “the percentage of child care needs met through military child care programs . . . and partnerships with local care providers.” Consistently, this number hovers around 78 percent—meaning that 22 percent of military families who need childcare can’t access it. This figure is consistent with Blue Star Families’ 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Comprehensive Report, which showed that 23 percent of active duty families who have a childcare need were unable to find childcare.

When announcing updates to the Army’s parenthood, pregnancy, and postpartum-centric policies in April 2022, Chief of Staff of the Army General James McConville made it clear: “We recruit soldiers, but we retain families.” Simultaneously, one in five service members report they would consider leaving active duty service due to spousal employment issues. Investing in the military childcare system is perhaps one of the fastest and most impactful things the Department of Defense can do to improve retention.

Military childcare is a true capacity and accessibility issue being felt across the Army. At Fort Myer, Virginia, one dual-military couple was recently informed there were forty-one other dual-military and single-soldier families ahead of them on the wait list for a handful of infant care spots. At Fort Wainwright, Alaska, the Child and Youth Services director estimates that dual-military and single-soldier families will wait about twelve months from the date they require childcare before being offered a slot at the child development center (CDC). At Fort Bliss, Texas, a dual-military family got placement at the CDC only after the mother had to bring her infant twins to work with her. Her brigade commander intervened and secured childcare at the CDC. Her experience is reflective of many others: when CDCs are inaccessible, there are often no reasonable or affordable options.

For military families, this has been a significant source of stress. The mental and emotional labor of securing childcare at a new duty station is already high. Thanks to COVID-19, about 9 percent of the nation’s center-based childcare capacity and 10 percent of the nation’s in-home daycare capacity was lost due to permanent closures. As a result, wait lists at surviving facilities grew. Furthermore, many childcare providers raised fees significantly to make up for lost revenue and cover increased expenses.

Military families typically receive permanent change of station orders about one to six months before a move. By the time they’ve identified their new duty stations, it’s often already too late to find childcare. Military families are going to extraordinary measures to circumnavigate the system and secure childcare. In the autumn of 2021, one military spouse put her child on the wait list for every CDC at every base they might get orders to—for their move in summer 2023. Higher-income families may be able to absorb higher costs by using expensive centers, Montessori schools, and au pair or nanny services. Lower-income families—typically junior enlisted families—are being placed in even more difficult situations as those options may not be financially feasible. This is especially concerning, as 29 percent of junior enlisted families also reported food insecurity. These families often need a second income to achieve economic stability but face an uphill battle to secure childcare.

Recent updates to childcare policy, including 2020’s updated childcare priority levels, fail to address capacity issues. Instead, policies like these shift the burden from one family type to another. Current plans, like the one briefed by Acting Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy, and Environment J.E. “Jack” Surash to Congress in May 2021, cite a ten-year, construction-heavy plan that will bring CDC capacity nearly to the level it requires today. While important to improve physical capacity, building for today’s numbers over the next ten years fails to solve current problems.

Solving Military Childcare Gaps

The civilian sector has seen significant shifts in the labor market due to COVID-19, including a mass exodus of women in the workforce. To attract and retain quality talent, the military needs to ensure the military childcare system can meets its goal of “reduc[ing] the conflict between mission requirements and parental responsibilities,” as opposed to creating conflict and stress for families.

First, we need to provide a clear, predicable system that gives military families realistic expectations. The current system, and arguably the current marketing, do not give military families accurate and useful projections on childcare availability. The wait list is a black box algorithm. Inputs include factors such as family status and priority level, time on the wait list, child’s age, and requested care date—but no one can explain to families how they are prioritized and offered childcare spots. DoD’s official childcare website offers an estimated placement date. However, those placement dates are not precise (for example, “May to June 2022,” as opposed to a specific date), and are known for being incredibly inaccurate. Families often show up to a duty station expecting childcare, only to learn they were “bumped” back on the wait list and now have an indefinite wait.

DoD needs to adopt a more transparent way to manage wait lists. Families do not know where they fall on the wait list unless the installation’s Child and Youth Services (CYS) staff chooses to disclose that information. Further, CYS staff is not required to offer care to prospective families until six weeks after the date of requested care. Families are left in the dark, or at the mercy of CYS administration.

Using historical data and family information can create a more reliable model that predicts an individualized probability of receiving childcare at a given duty station. This would give families the necessary information to make informed decisions about housing, spousal employment, schools, and finding alternate childcare. A family that is told it has a 95 percent chance of receiving childcare by its requested date would make different choices than a family with a 20 percent chance. Providing a probability, as well as an exact location on the wait list, and making that information visible to families would be far more useful than the current date range. Families would be able to get real-time, accurate information to make informed decisions about work and childcare.

Second, we need to pay our childcare providers an adequate salary. This change has the potential to have an immediate impact on childcare capacity across DoD. Many installations, including those tagged for construction of new childcare facilities, are not using all the classrooms in current facilities due to staffing shortages. While staffing data is not publicly available, anecdotal evidence from military families across the country shows that many CDCs are understaffed. Increased staffing would immediately result in increased capacity, and likely remove a significant number of children from the wait lists. Adequate staffing not only increases CDC capacity, but also improves the quality of life for current staff. Better work conditions, including a higher wage, can contribute to higher job satisfaction and retention. Higher retention reduces turbulence for our military children, and allows CDC administrators to invest time in training and mentoring current staff, which can also help reduce turnover.

The physical, mental, and emotional investment of childcare workers needs to be met with adequate pay. The hourly rate for entry-level military childcare direct-care staff starts at $13.73 per hour, or $28,558.40 annually (before taxes, assuming a forty-hour work week). At mid-levels, it’s just $15.02 to16.86 per hour ($31,241.60 to $35,068.80 annually). In some high-cost areas, the pay is adjusted—but not very much. For example, the starting rate at CDCs around Washington, DC is $15.68. This is a 14 percent increase in taxable base pay, which is inadequate in a market where a service member’s tax-free basic allowance for housing (BAH) is double the base rate.

Low pay limits the pool of potentially qualified candidates from which military CDCs can draw. More notably, there is a good chance that a universal pre-K (which would not necessarily substitute for childcare for full-time working parents) could exacerbate staffing shortages across the United States. If DoD doesn’t get ahead of this issue, it could face even more severe staffing shortages in the next decade.

There are several ways DoD could support increased caregiver salaries. For example, fee charts could be expanded to better capture high-income families. The current fee system allows lower-income families to access care at a lower monthly cost. However, families in lower income brackets pay a higher percentage of household income. For example, a family earning between $30,001 and $40,000 pays up to almost 12 percent of household income for childcare for one child, versus less than 7 percent for those earning over $140,000 per year. A family of dual-military O-3s earns about $163,000 annually, while dual-military O-4s earn about $190,000. At that income level, a family is paying around 5 percent of annual income for childcare. The current fee system grossly under-charges higher-income families, often at the expense of junior enlisted soldiers.

I created a simple Monte Carlo simulation using the current fee chart and an income-revised fee chart. A Monte Carlo simulation is a mathematical technique that allows for simulation of an uncertain event. It provides a range of possible outcomes. In this case, the uncertain event was the fee level at which the patron paid. I modeled the fee level uniformly—meaning each fee level was equally likely to occur. Then, I simulated a CDC with ninety-one children enrolled, and allocated twenty-four direct-care staff to meet ratio guidelines based on various age groups. I ran two simulations: one with the current fee chart, and one with an updated fee chart that captured families earning up to $190,000 per year. After one thousand iterations each, the revised fee chart model resulted in a 14.5 percent increase in gross revenue. In my hypothetical scenario, this generates enough revenue to pay direct-care staff an extra $278 (low end) to $314 (high end) per month. Restructuring the fees charts to be more equitable and capture high-earning families could go a long way in funding increases in direct-care worker salaries.

Third, it’s time to cut the red tape from the Child Care Aware (CCA) military fee assistance programs. These programs exist to subsidize childcare for families who cannot obtain CDC spots, either due to a lack of space in CDCs or due to being stationed in a location where CDC care is not available. CCA fee assistance is the approved alternative when CDCs cannot meet demand but presents significant barriers for families. When my family lived in Boston without military bases nearby, we navigated the Army’s fee assistance program. It required a mountain of paperwork from both us and the daycare upfront; it took months to process; and the CCA program failed to provide status updates. Not only was the process cumbersome and bureaucratic, but the fee assistance we received seemed to fluctuate month to month.

The CCA fee assistance also fails to adjust for location. Patrons in low-cost areas are allocated the same amount of fee assistance as those in high-cost areas. A family at a low-cost duty station—such as Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri—could use CCA fee assistance for off-base care and pay the same rate as that of a military CDC. However, in a high-cost area like the National Capital Region, families pay two to three times as much for off-base care as they do at military CDCs. DoD adjusts BAH based on cost of living and provides a cost of living allowance (COLA) to offset increased costs of goods and services in high-cost areas. For the CCA system to be more equitable, the fee assistance rate needs to adjust in tandem with COLA and BAH.

The military can make significant strides in improving childcare access by creating a transparent wait list system, increasing and retaining staff through better pay, and overhauling the fee assistance program. As the authors of a Joint Force Quarterly article explained, “The implications for readiness suggest that the United States cannot afford to under-invest in childcare.” The military childcare landscape could dramatically change for the better—especially in high-cost, high-demand regions. Improving childcare access is one of the lowest-cost, but most impactful, things we can do for our military personnel and their families, and to improve military readiness and retain soldiers.

Maj. Erin Williams is an assistant professor in the Department of Systems Engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point, a wife, and a mother of three young children. She spent a decade as an engineer officer, serving in the 20th Engineer Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, and the 101st Airborne Division before transitioning to the operations research/systems analysis functional area. She holds a master’s degree in data science from Harvard University, as well as degrees from Missouri University of Science and Technology and the United States Military Academy. She is a graduate of Sapper Leader Course, US Army Jumpmaster School, and Air Assault School. Her research interests include body size and body image among service members and quality-of-life issues, including military childcare.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Airman 1st Class Madelyn Yepez