Military families are losing an average of $5,000 in out-of-pocket expenses each time they move, according to survey data just released by a national nonprofit organization.

That includes an average of $1,913 in moving expenses that aren’t reimbursed by the military, and an average of $2,920 over and above claims paid for loss and damage to their belongings, according to the Military Family Advisory Network survey data released Tuesday. More than two-thirds of those who moved to a new duty station within the past three years experienced loss or damage in their most recent move.

The survey was conducted online in the fall of 2019, and highlights a number of pain points that military families experienced well before the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 8,000 people responded to the online survey, and 42 percent of them were active duty members and spouses; 32 percent were veterans and spouses; and 20 percent were retirees and spouses.

MFAN researchers recommend that military officials provide more information to families about the actual cost of moving and what they can do to prepare; improve the reimbursement process; compensate service members fairly for loss and damage. And as U.S. Transportation Command shifts to putting the management of military moves into hands of a private company, officials should incorporate oversight, transparency and performance metrics that recognize families’ experiences during their moves, researchers said.

One change TRANSCOM officials have made this year gives service members more time to submit a claim for loss and/or damage.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating many issues for military families, such as problems with food insecurity, debt, lack of adequate emergency savings, difficulty getting medical appointments, spouse employment, and isolation, said Shelley Kimball, MFAN’s senior director of research and program evaluation.

An MFAN survey released in February, 2019 was key in bringing to lawmakers’ attention the serious conditions of mold, vermin, water leaks and other problems in some privatized housing. But this current survey, conducted some nine months later to revisit the issues of privatized housing, as defense and service officials were digging in to the root problems of housing, found that of those living in privatized military housing, 72 percent said they hadn’t seen a change. Repairs were still needed, or they still felt they were being treated unfairly, and their concerns weren’t being heard.

Another 19 percent said things were better, and 8 percent said things were worse. Those in the ranks of E1 to E3 reported the highest negative perceptions of the condition of their homes, with 36 percent describing their satisfaction with the condition of their home as being“very negative.”

Legislation was passed at the end of 2019 to address the problems, including requiring a tenant bill of rights. That bill of rights has been partially implemented.

One issue that popped during this survey which hadn’t shown up in their previous seven years of research is military parents’ concerns that seeking mental health care for their children will affect that child’s ability to later enter military service, said Kimball. Military Times has reported that a number of military dependents are being booted out of basic training because of various notations in their minor dependent records. Often the parents themselves had no idea the notations were in their children’s records. But the notations were discovered because the dependent medical records were merged with their new military service record while they were in basic training.

PCS Moves: effect on finances cited by survey participants%
Excessive out-of-pocket costs69.2%
Long-term negative impact59%
Reimbursements not enough or delayed21%
Spouses’ unemployment losses11.6%
Minimal financial effects10.2%
Source: Military Family Advisory Network survey

The MFAN survey highlights a number of issues that military families have long experienced, and adds to the growing body of data. It also shows how so many of these areas are interconnected — such as relocation, finances, housing, spouse employment and child care.

“I was surprised at how interconnected different areas are,” said Shannon Razsadin, MFAN executive director. This survey also used the UCLA Loneliness Scale to better understand the feelings of isolation in military families, and found connections with loneliness to a variety of areas such food insecurity, finances, and intimate partner violence. Spouses of active duty members who rated their experience with the civilian community as poor within the past two years were more likely to rate as lonely on the scale, according to the survey. Razsadin said this is one of the areas researchers will explore in a deeper data dive.

The survey findings have also pointed MFAN researchers to launch a more detailed project focused on Texas, Razsadin said, starting in the fall. The survey indicates that Texas military families need more support in some areas, like food insecurity, she said. Texas was the state with the highest frequency of food insecurity, according to survey findings. Food insecurity means that at some point during the year, a family doesn’t know where the next meal will come from.

During the MFAN presentation of the results of their survey, they featured a video of an Army wife whose husband is stationed at Fort Hood. She and her husband went to a local food pantry with their baby to sign up for services before he deployed, she said, because “he can’t be here to make sure we’re taken care of in that food sense.” She has since encouraged other military families to use the services.

Overall in the survey, there were higher rates of those who reported incidents of hunger because of food insecurity among active duty members and their families, and veterans and their families. Each group was at 9 percent.

Among the other survey findings:

*Child care availability. Nearly two-thirds of active duty family respondents -- 62 percent -- said they need child care or have needed it during the past two years. And more than three-fourths – 77 percent – say the search for child care has been difficult. A top need is hourly care, as 64 percent of active duty families said they had to miss a medical appointment because of lack of child care in the past two years.

*Child care cost. Families said they need more affordable child care options, but 78 percent of active duty families had not used a military child care fee subsidy program which helps offset the cost of child care in the civilian community.

*Children’s education. About three-fourths of parents rated their child’s education experience at school as positive or very positive; 8 percent rated their child’s experience as negative; nearly 3 percent rated it very negative.

*Financial issues. 27 percent of currently serving families (to include National Guard and Reserve families as well as active duty) said they have less than $500 in emergency savings. Of those, 12 percent have no emergency savings. On the other hand, 31 percent of currently serving families have $10,000 or more in emergency savings.

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.

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