Military family support programs would see a $600 million boost under President Trump's proposed budget, but the request comes with a $100 million cut in funding for child care and youth programs despite calls from families for more support in those areas.
Family support programs would receive $8.3 billion in fiscal 2018 under the proposal, which was submitted to Congress earlier this week. Commissaries would receive $1.4 billion of that, up $200 million over fiscal 2017.
Child care and youth programs would get $1.2 billion, down from $1.3 billion in fiscal 2017. Information was not available about why officials requested less this year, especially as the services implement their programs to expand the hours of operation for child development centers.
"We thought the decrease was striking," said Eileen Huck, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, adding that families have long asked for more child care. She said the NMFA found the plan "disappointing."
A $200 million increase in "warfighter and family services" across all branches would raise that budget to $1.7 billion. A breakdown of the funds was not immediately available from defense officials; programs on this budget line include military exchanges, family support centers, tuition assistance and nonmedical counseling support services for active duty, National Guard and Reserve members and their families.
As the services plan to add personnel, the NMFA's government relations director questioned whether that increase would be enough to pay for benefits across a larger number of military families.
"We do appreciate [Defense] Secretary [Jim] Mattis' recognition that families need support," NMFA's Kelly Hruska said. "It's not a lot of money, but we do appreciate the effort."
The commissary budget boost comes as defense officials have sought to cut funding in recent years, only to have the figures restored by Congress. Plans call for fundamental changes to the benefit that would reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars required to operate the 240 stores around the world.
Among the changes: A "variable pricing" program that allows officials to raise prices on some items to make money to help operate the stores. The overall average regional savings levels would stay steady, officials claim.
"We're pleased they recognize that, regardless of planned changes, funding is required to operate and maintain the commissary benefit," Huck said. "Even if they think their transformation will reduce the need for [taxpayer dollars], we're not there yet. We're pleased to see full funding in the budget request."
Other military family-related budget items in the president's proposal:
- Taxpayer funding for "mission-sustaining" morale, welfare and recreation programs would remain constant at $1.5 billion. These programs include fitness centers, libraries and some education and recreation programs; other programs such as golf courses must be self-sustaining, operating on patron fees. While the number remains flat, Hruska noted, she's hearing from families about cuts in services.
- Funding to operate Department of Defense Education Activity schools would move from $2.1 billion in fiscal 2017 to $2.4 billion. DoDEA operates 111 schools in 12 countries and 58 schools in seven states, Puerto Rico and Guam. Factoring in proposed construction costs, the DoDEA budget proposal reaches $3.1 billion.
- The budget proposal would provide $100 million for the Spouse Employment and Career Opportunities Program, the same amount provided in each of the last two fiscal years. This pays for some tuition assistance programs for certain spouses of junior enlisted personnel and junior officers, as well as education and employment counseling and assistance to all military spouses, among other benefits.
Hruska said families need to be reminded that the budget request is just the first step in a process, and that the House and Senate will now take that request through their own decision-making process.
Senior reporter Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.