Note: This article was updated May 25 after a press conference to include comments from Reps. Sanford Bishop, D-Georgia, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington.
Unemployment and underemployment of military spouses not only affects individual families, but it's costing the U.S. economy — to the tune of about $710 million to $1 billion a year, according to a new report.
The study, commissioned by the nonprofit Blue Star Families, calculated the cost of lost federal income tax, of unemployment benefits, and of costs for health care issues that may related to unemployment and underemployment. By far the largest effect on the economy is the total lost income tax that spouses would have paid, ranging from $578 million to $763 million.
Researchers looked at a number of recent studies and reports on military spouse unemployment and underemployment, conducted by Rand, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, and the Defense Department. They also looked at other reports about the general population, including those from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau.
They compared unemployment rates, underemployment, reduced labor participation rates, and other factors in similar age groups, and included only female military spouses, because of the high proportion of female spouses and the lack of data on male military spouses.
The report "helps me get people’s attention," said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Blue Star Families. "The No. 1 number one reason we have this crippling problem is that it’s invisible.
"No one knows about it, and no one cares about it when it's the individual's problem. When it's the individual's problem, it's not solvable," That changes when it's everyone's problem, she said.
This is not a problem limited to military spouses, Roth-Douquet said.
"This is a problem for military households. …. We're hurting the military by not providing them the same opportunities others have. They don't want a handout — they want to work ... These efforts are aimed at those who want to work, but can't," she said, noting that the organization also respects the wishes of those who choose not to work because of young children or other reasons.
The researchers from Sorenson Impact Center and the University of Utah's School of Business developed an economic model to come up with the cost to the U.S. economy based on key findings in previous research.
The finding of the report "is most alarming. For military families and for our nation, we must do more to support our military spouses in the work force," said Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Georgia, in a press conference May 25 announcing the results. It's how the country takes care of troops and their families that will determine how the military force will be sustained in the future, he said.
"This study will play a critical role in helping us define the scope of the problem and also identify some solutions," said Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, who co-chairs the Congressional Military Family Caucus with Sanford.
In calculating the costs based on unemployment, they used the difference between the military spouse unemployment rate and the comparable civilian rate. Because there has been a range of unemployment rates from various studies, they calculated a "low scenario" ($710 million) and a "high scenario" ($1 billion).
In the low-end scenario, based on a 2010 Rand analysis, the military spouse unemployment rate is 12 percent, compared to 7.7 percent for comparable civilian spouses. For the calculation, researchers used the difference between the 12 percent and the 7.7 percent to show what it costs the U.S. economy over and above what costs for comparable civilian spouses would have been.
The high scenario is built on unemployment assumptions from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2015, in which military spouse rates are 18 percent, compared to 4.4 percent.
Many spouses who are working are underemployed — working at a position that's not commensurate with levels of experience or education, or employed in a field different from the one in which they received formal education, or earning less than 20 percent of the average of their peers with the same major or occupation.
"I've worked at 10 percent of my pre-marital salary — not unemployed, but pretty darn close," Roth-Douquet said.
Roth-Douquet said she hopes to create a coalition aimed at hiring military spouses that's similar to ongoing efforts, such as Joining Forces, to hire veterans.
"Like with veterans, we can come together as a community ... This is a problem everyone can be a part of the solution to."
The Defense Department's Military Spouse Employment Partnership, with more than 300 companies and organizations, "is a great, great start," Roth-Douquet said. "But it's too little. We would like to build up something more powerful."
The results of the study "tell me I'm one of many, and it's a national issue, not a military issue," said Marine Corps wife Amanda Yeram.
"There's been great success with veteran issues of unemployment. I hope we can do the same thing for spouse employment. We may not be veterans, but we belong to the same group. We deserve opportunities."
Yeram, who is married to a Marine staff sergeant, has experienced these struggles as she tried to find meaningful employment to contribute needed income to her family. She left the Marine Corps in 2002 after her son was born and her husband deployed to Iraq. The transition to civilian life was difficult, she said, and she was unemployed for their remaining time at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. When they moved to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California, she started the search all over again, and after eight months, found a job as an office manager working for a contractor on the installation.
When they moved to Camp Pendleton, California, in 2011, she said, there were major issues for the family because of the cost of living, but the overwhelming number of spouses in the area meant that "finding a job was virtually impossible." She went back to school using her Post-911 G.I. Bill benefits and worked hard for three years to earn two bachelor's degrees — in health care management and in human resources. The housing stipend from the G.I. Bill "helped offset the financial needs. We needed that money," she said. "But that's not an option that many military spouses have.
"Our family needed the dual income to survive, and since I couldn't find a job, that was my only other option," she said.
After college, she applied for a fellowship with Blue Star Families. That fellowship has turned into a satisfying career for her — she was hired as an operations specialist by Blue Star Families last fall, and in March was promoted to business operations manager, working in the group's San Diego office.
"Not only did it lift my spirits and help with sleepless nights, knowing we had some financial security, but it helped drive me forward, find a niche. It helped me support my community.
"It helped my mental strength. I'm a very passionate and self-driven person and felt a strain not being able to help support my family," she said. Although her husband never said anything about her inability to find a job, she said, she felt the strain herself. Her career has helped her entire family dynamic, because she is also more fulfilled.
"It's made a huge difference to me and my family," she said.
"In order to help solve this problem, we need to join forces."
Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.