Military Families Are Most Worried About Pay and Benefits

New survey of spouses, service members and vets reveals force reduction and budget cuts are driving anxiety over finances.

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

Concerns over changes to military pay and other compensation, as well as changes to the retirement system, were the top two issues cited by spouses, service members and veterans in a new survey from Blue Star Families, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization supporting the military community.Pay and benefits issues represented the No. 1 fear for 73 percent of military spouses and 75 percent of service members in the Blue Star Families’ 2014 military family lifestyle survey. Sixty-four percent of vets named compensation as their second biggest worry, followed by potential changes to the military’s pension system. The survey drew 6,270 responses.

The Defense Department’s planned force reduction after 13 years of war and sequestration is driving the anxiety many military families feel over their short- and long-term financial future, the survey found. “These issues are not lost on individuals serving in the military, veterans or their families,” the report said. “National decisions also trickle down to the dinner table at home, increasing concern among military families on how they will be personally impacted by each decision.” Military families also listed pay and benefits issues as their top concern in 2013.

A commission studying military compensation and retirement will submit recommendations to President Obama and Congress in February 2015, and the proposed changes could affect a range of third-rail military compensation issues, including commissary benefits, housing allowances and the pension system. “With these forecasts and discussions as the backdrop, concerns about uncertainty and financial stability were of top importance to military members, families and veteran survey respondents in this survey,” the report stated.

Seventy percent of the survey respondents were military spouses, followed by 21 percent who were either service members or veterans. The remaining participants included other family members of active-duty military members or vets. Military spouses and active-duty members also cited spouse employment, the uncertainty of the military lifestyle and the impact of deployment on children among their top five “lifestyle” concerns. Vets reported the greatest anxiety, after pay and benefits worries, over the disability claims backlog, the perceived disconnect between the military and civilian communities, and post-traumatic and combat stress.

Military spouses often encounter difficulty finding jobs, which contributed to respondents’ general sense of financial uncertainty, according to the survey. The challenges vary, but typically include a lack of child care, frequent moves or employer bias. “Within open-ended responses, many spouses described encounters with potential employers who reportedly held preconceived notions that military spouse job seekers lacked adequate education, skills or experience, or who were concerned that frequent moves would ultimately mean short periods of employment,” the survey said. “Employers may be unaware that many military tours are about the same length of time as the average worker’s tenure with one company--around four years.” In fact, the 2014 survey’s military spouse respondents were better educated than the general public, with 33 percent having a bachelor’s degree and 20 percent holding an advanced professional degree.

Some spouses who do work are feeling another kind of pressure. One Navy spouse told Blue Star Families: “I am so broken as a mother because I work, then I come home and run around to take them both to their activities. We have less than two hours each night to be in our home and I am dying inside! I am away from my other family because the military required us to move and then deployed my husband. I have no outlet but am expected to maintain normalcy for my children, continue working, and take on the EVERYDAY role of two parents for two children for over a year with absolutely NO break!”

The survey also touched on a range of other issues important to military families including, military kids’ education and emotional well-being, transitioning to civilian life, ability to cope with stress, healthiness of respondents’ marriages and the quality of Defense Department services. The top services used by respondents were the commissary and exchange network; health care system; morale, recreation and welfare; base housing; and child development centers. The survey found that most services were “underutilized,” but for those respondents who did take advantage of the programs, a majority reported they were satisfied with them. Along those lines, 71 percent of respondents said they “felt prepared” to transition to civilian life, compared to 29 percent who said they did not.

One of the most interesting findings from the survey: Despite the pride and commitment most respondents reported feeling about their own or their loved one’s military service, nearly half (48 percent) said they weren’t likely to recommend the path to a young person.