For military children and their families, the economic news is mostly good. After a period of steady pay increases, James Hosek and Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth write, service members typically earn more than civilians with a comparable level of education. Moreover, they receive many other benefits that civilians often do not, including housing allowances, subsidized child care, tuition assistance, and top-of-the-line comprehensive health care. Of course, service members tend to work longer hours than civilians do, and they are exposed to hazards that civilians rarely, if ever, face. The extra pay they receive when they are deployed to combat zones helps their families cope financially but cannot alleviate the stress.
Though service members are relatively well paid, the military lifestyle takes a toll on the earnings of their spouses. Chiefly because the military requires service members to move frequently, spouses’ careers are regularly interrupted, and employers are hesitant to offer them jobs that require a large investment in training or a long learning curve. More military spouses than comparable civilian spouses are either unemployed or work fewer hours than they would like, and military spouses overall tend to earn less than their civilian counterparts.
Despite the military’s relatively high pay, some service members and their families—particularly among the junior enlisted ranks—report financial distress, and a handful even qualify for food stamps. Moreover, precisely because military pay tends to be higher than civilian pay, families may see a drop in income when a service member leaves the armed forces. Finally, the pay increases of recent years have slowed, and force cutbacks are coming; both of these factors will alter the financial picture for service members, possibly for the worse.