Blue Star Families’ annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey (aMFLS) has been providing a comprehensive understanding of the experiences and challenges encountered by military families since 2009. It offers crucial insight and data to help inform national leaders, local communities, and philanthropic actors—functions that are even more important as decision makers assess how to support military and veteran families while the nation recovers from a global pandemic. Blue Star Families conducted its 11th annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey from September to October 2020. Capturing experiences of nearly 11,000 respondents worldwide, and generating millions of data points, it remains the largest and most comprehensive survey of active-duty, National Guard, and Reserve service members, veterans, and their families.
SUPPORTING MILITARY FAMILIES STRENGTHENS NATIONAL SECURITY & LOCAL COMMUNITIES
The tumultuous events of 2020 intensified some pre-existing concerns common across military families including spouse employment, child care, military children’s education and time away. This year’s events underscored the importance of addressing these long-standing concerns, while also shining a spotlight on systemic problems. While the stormy year of 2020 created significant challenges, it also clarified issues and sparked changes, giving stakeholders interested in supporting military and veteran families a clearer view of the path to recovery.
The 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey Comprehensive Report examines these shifts and opportunities through the social determinants of health, exploring the five pillars that set the conditions for individual and family health and well-being: community and social context, health care access, education access and quality, neighborhood and the built environment, and economic stability.1
COVID-19 Impacts Infographic
Community and Social Context
Discrimination in the Military: Service members reported experiencing racial and gender discrimination, potentially impacting readiness and retention. Most did not report the most recent incident of discrimination. Also, a smaller proportion of those active-duty service member respondents who experienced military connected racial discrimination (43%) would recommend service than those who had not experienced discrimination (63%). Nearly one in 10 veterans of color reported racial discrimination was one of the reasons they left military service.
Unit Communication and Leadership: Fewer than half of service members reported feeling a sense of belonging to their unit. The number was even lower for female service members. Fewer than half agreed their command communicates well, and makes good decisions, but those who did agree reported significantly less stress.
Family Needs During Deployment: More than half of families who experienced a deployment or activation during COVID-19 experienced an unanticipated extension of their time apart. Service members and their family members reported their top needs during deployment include communication, opportunities to exercise, and access to medical care and mental health resources.
Voting: The overwhelming majority of military family respondents are registered to vote. Their decisions about where they registered were influenced by rules/regulations and their desire to maintain connection to specific communities. Military families are highly civically engaged.
National Guard/Reserve Service Members: Reserve and National Guard service members reported negative employment consequences during their career after an activation or deployment. Despite federal legal protections, nearly a quarter (23%) of National Guard and a third (34%) of Reserve service member respondents noted negative consequences with their civilian employers after returning from activation, such as losing promotion or training opportunities, involuntary reductions in hours or pay, or loss of employment.
Female Service Members and Veterans: Throughout the military life cycle, female service member respondents face greater challenges with balancing military and family life and report more negative experiences associated with service than their male counterparts. Service experiences are complex, and experiences of gender-based discrimination, harassment, assault, and general life challenges often occur alongside positive experiences of meaningful work and camaraderie with peers.
Health Care Access
Mental Health: Families still experience barriers to mental health care; 21% would like to receive care but do not currently. Nearly one-quarter (23%) of active-duty spouse respondents and 16% of active-duty service member respondents indicated having a current diagnosis for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Despite increased use of telehealth services, active-duty family member respondents continue to report difficulty scheduling appointments, difficulty getting time off work for treatment, difficulty finding child care, and concerns about confidentiality.
Education Access and Quality
Relocation and Military Children with Special Needs: Active-duty families with children with special needs experience difficulty accessing educational and health care support services, particularly during relocation; these issues were exacerbated by COVID-19. The majority (78%) of active-duty family respondents with a child receiving special education services lost all or some of those educational support services during COVID-19 closures. Those transitioning to a new duty station encountered additional challenges; half of active-duty 6 family respondents with a child enrolled in special education, who PCSed since March 2020, reported they had trouble transferring their child(ren)’s IEP (51%) or 504 Plan (48%) to their new school.
Changing School Modality: Virtual education tripled in the last year, and more families are moving to homeschooling. Fifty-one percent of active-duty family respondents reported their oldest child participated in virtual education delivery in the 2020-2021 school year; 13% reported homeschooling. The shift to virtual education has impeded spouse employment; 36% of active-duty spouse respondents who are not working reported they were not working so they could homeschool their child(ren) or supervise virtual schooling.
Neighborhood and the Built Environment
Housing Choices: Most families pay well over the monthly out-of-pocket housing costs the Department of Defense projects they should be paying ($70-$158); of those active-duty families who reported out of pocket costs, 77% pay more than $200 out-of-pocket each month. When choosing housing, families prioritize proximity to base, family safety, a desirable school district, pet acceptance, and whether BAH will cover the costs. Financial stress increases with greater out-of-pocket housing costs.
Child Care: Child care remains a top barrier to spouse employment, and it has intensified during COVID-19; it’s a greater challenge for families with kids with special needs. Lower income families have a harder time finding child care that works for their situation, but higher-income families still encounter challenges. Over half of service member respondents reported “permission to work remotely” would alleviate child care and schooling challenges.
Food Insecurity: While low food security is most prominent among junior enlisted family respondents (29%), higher ranking enlisted families also experience it. Fourteen percent of enlisted active-duty family respondents reported low or very low food security.
Spouse Employment: The spouse unemployment rate is higher in active-duty spouse respondents of color (27% vs. 17%) and recently relocated spouses (31% vs. 16%). Since March 2020, 42% of active-duty spouse respondents who had been working prior to the pandemic reported they had stopped working at some point during it, with layoffs and furloughs as the top reported cause. Most (68%) of those who stopped working remained unemployed at the time of survey fielding. Spouses identified remote/telework, transferring to a new location within the same company, and more flexibility from their service member’s command over their day-to-day job demands as preferred solutions.
The full report can be found here:
2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey Comprehensive Report
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Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Survey of Military Families
From Blue Star Families: