Married to the Military: The Employment and Earnings of Military Wives Compared with Those of Civilian Wives

Today's military is a military of families. About one in seven active duty members enter the military married, and by the eighth year of military service, approximately three-quarters of the members are married and many also have children. Military duties, hardships, and risks affect not only the military member, but also the member's entire family. As part of RAND's analysis of a range of compensation issues in support of the 9th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation, researchers examined whether military family incomes were lower than civilian family incomes and, if so, can this difference partially be explained by low spousal earnings? On March 21, 2002, project leader James Hosek presented a preview of RAND's findings to the Pentagon. These findings were published in a RAND report, Married to the Military: The Employment and Earnings of Military Wives Compared with Those of Civilian Wives.

Studies of recruiting and retention commonly take the perspective of the military member and have little, if any, information about the employment and earnings opportunities of the spouse and their effect on the decision to join or stay. RAND's analysis focused on the employment and earnings of military wives as a step toward providing a fuller picture of the lives led by military spouses.

The research looked specifically at husband-and-wife families over the period from 1987 to 1999. Samples of military and civilian families were drawn from the Current Population Survey and weighted to reflect the active duty population. CPS data indicated that military family earnings are on average $10,000 lower than civilian family earnings. Reported military earnings on the CPS may have omitted certain military benefits, however, such as nontaxable allowances, health coverage, and on-base housing. If these items were omitted, including them would bring the military husband's earnings toward parity with the civilian husband's earnings; in that case, the wife's wages would then account for much of the remaining difference between military and civilian family earnings.

Compared with civilian wives, military wives are less likely to work in a year, less likely to work full time, have fewer weeks of work, and have similar, though slightly lower, hours of work per week. Together, these factors imply that military wives work fewer hours per year. Researchers also found that military wives' wages are lower, whether measured by weekly wage or hourly wage. Researchers then examined factors that might account for this disparity. Among the hypotheses they considered, several seemed especially helpful in explaining this differential pattern of outcomes for military wives.

To begin, military wives are an increasingly selected population as the military career of her husband progresses. Many members marry as young junior officers or enlisted members, and a significant fraction of junior and early mid-career members leave the military. The family's decision to stay in, or leave, the military presumably takes into account the wife's career prospects and career aspirations as well as those of the member. Wives who believe their opportunities to be greater outside the military will influence the decision for the member to leave the military, other things being equal. Additional hypotheses suggest reasons why that might be the case.

One hypothesis is that the more frequent moves of the military family lead to a lower-wage equilibrium. Military families move more often and farther than civilian families; consequently, researchers found that moves alone account for an additional 2.6-weeks difference in the number of weeks worked between civilian and military wives. Researchers therefore recommend that quality-of-life policies aimed at improving the relative standing of military wives should focus on reducing the frequency of long-distance moves or compensating for the losses associated with such moves.

A related hypothesis is that the military is demanding of the member's time, and the family's decision regarding the wife's labor supply takes these demands into account. The member must report when commanded to do so, and the member's schedule may have rigidities and uncertainties that are more prominent than in many civilian jobs. These demands may affect the wife's labor supply and induce her to seek jobs with flexible hours that might also have a lower wage. Furthermore, the military may be demanding of the wife's time. Officers' wives and senior NCO wives are often expected to organize and participate in family support activities.

RAND's analysis also refuted some commonly held misconceptions about military wives. Contrary to stereotypes, military wives:

  • Do not have markedly different fertility patterns
  • Are not hurt more by having children in terms of their labor market outcomes than are civilian wives with children
  • Are not disproportionately living in rural locales
  • Who live in rural locales earn nearly the same wage as those in suburban or urban areas, whereas civilian wives in rural areas earn a much lower wage
  • Who move do not suffer a larger wage loss than civilian wives who move, for a move of a given length

Looking to the future, the research underscores the value of conducting research on how the military wife's career aspirations and job prospects affect the member's reenlistment. Ultimately, if the services want to lengthen military careers, it may be important to incorporate the military spouse into the calculus of future policy formulation.