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Wallet Woes Plague Military Families

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Military families have a lot to worry about, and their biggest fears are over pay and benefits.

A new survey shows a rising level of anxiety over compensation: Thirty-five percent of military families rated pay and benefits as their top concern in the 2013 report, conducted in late 2012, from Blue Star Families, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization supporting the military community. That’s a 15 percent increase from the group’s 2012 survey, conducted in 2011.

In fact, the top three fears in the 2013 report are related to financial uncertainty. About 20 percent of respondents listed both changes in retirement benefits and employment opportunities for their service member spouses as particularly worrisome. Given that more than one million service members are leaving active duty during the next five years as we leave Afghanistan, the survey results are not especially surprising. Fears over pay and benefits and potential changes to the military’s retirement system have remained the same in the last few years, regardless of whether the service member had less than or more than 20 years of service -- the point at which they become eligible for retirement benefits.

Still the level of anxiety among the members of the military community over these fiscal issues is somewhat interesting, considering Congress lately has preferred taking the budget ax to federal civilian employees’ compensation. Military members continue to receive an annual across-the-board pay increase, while civilians are in their third year of a pay freeze. Lawmakers are loath to modify the military’s retirement system, which rewards longevity, despite repeated calls for reform every year.

But sequestration, which was looming when the 2013 survey was conducted, could be stoking economic fears. Active duty military members are exempt, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be affected by budget cuts to agency programs within the Defense Department.

“The military services initiated many good programs for families,” said the survey. “Yet many of these programs now face cuts. Particularly in the face of sequestration, military families and service members anxiously wait to see how they will be personally affected by the changes.”

Other concerns among the military community in the latest survey included the effects of deployments on children, length of deployments, increase in suicides, and combat stress. Of the 5,125 military family members who started the survey, 3,153 completed the entire questionnaire -- 73 percent of whom were military spouses. Eighty-four percent of respondents were female, and 67 percent of respondents had minor children living at home.

The survey also evaluated respondents’ opinions over the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the 1993 law that allowed gays to serve in the military provided they kept their sexual orientation a secret. Seventy-five percent said the repeal had no impact on their service member’s ability to do his or her job, and 72 percent said it did not affect at all their service member’s desire to re-enlist or stay in the military.

Unfortunately, however, the military-civilian cultural divide is still alive and well. Eighty-eight percent of respondents disagreed with the statement, “The general public is aware of the impacts of military service on military families,” while 92 percent disagreed with the statement, “The general public truly understands the sacrifices made by service members and their families.”

Pay Debate Continues

Lawmakers aren’t known for their lack of opinions. And these days they certainly have lots to say about federal employee compensation.

The topic of federal pay continues to crop up in discussions over larger pieces of legislation, particularly in the GOP-controlled House. Earlier this week, the House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal 2014 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs spending bill, which provides $73.3 billion in discretionary funds to house, train and equip military personnel as well as veterans’ benefits and programs.

During the bill’s mark-up, a Democrat and a Republican each offered fed pay-related amendments that revealed how far apart many of them remain on the issue. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., offered a measure that would cut the pay of VA employees, ostensibly those with benefits claims responsibilities, if the department failed to meet its goal of eliminating the enormous claims backlog by 2015. Kingston withdrew the specific amendment, but pledged to work with other lawmakers as the bill winds its way through the chamber on coming up with a feasible version that retains a pay cut tied to eliminating the backlog. Watch for that to reappear before it’s all said and done.

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., defended federal compensation during the same mark-up, and unsuccessfully tried to insert into the bill the Obama administration’s proposed 1 percent pay increase for feds in 2014. That doesn’t necessarily mean that feds are definitely in for a fourth consecutive pay freeze. Congress still has to get through several spending bills before the end of fiscal 2013, so there’s plenty of time left for debate and plenty of other opportunities for a 2014 pay increase -- or extended freeze -- to resurface.

Kellie Lunney covers federal pay and benefits issues, the budget process and financial management. After starting her career in journalism at Government Executive in 2000, she returned in 2008 after four years at sister publication National Journal writing profiles of influential Washingtonians. In 2006, she received a fellowship at the Ohio State University through the Kiplinger Public Affairs in Journalism program, where she worked on a project that looked at rebuilding affordable housing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, NPR and Feature Story News, where she participated in a weekly radio roundtable on the 2008 presidential campaign. In the late 1990s, she worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as a career employee. She is a graduate of Colgate University.

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