Military Child Care System Should Reassess Delivery of Services to Better Meet Goals

For Release

September 29, 2008

The U.S. military should reassess its child care system to look for ways to make it better fit the needs of military families and more effectively meet recruitment, readiness and retention goals, according to a study issued today by the RAND Corporation.

“The U.S. Department of Defense has done a good job of delivering high quality child care on military bases,” said Gail L. Zellman, the study’s lead author and a senior research psychologist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “However, our research found that it isn’t meeting the child care needs of many service members; it may be time to reexamine the system as a whole for possible improvements.”

The military child care system is the largest employer-sponsored child care provider in the country, and is widely recognized for providing high-quality care. Currently, the Department of Defense spends $480 million annually to provide care for 175,000 of the nearly 1.3 million children under age 12 who are eligible as dependents of active duty military members and selected reservists.

“Unlike other military benefits that are broadly available to all or many military members, child care benefits are targeted to families with young children,” said Susan M. Gates, RAND senior economist and co-author of the report.

An estimated 7 percent of all military members use Child Development Centers and another 4 percent use Family Child Care homes. Among military families with children, fewer than half use Department of Defense-sponsored child care.

Care in the Child Development Centers -- large centers usually located on military installations that provide care on a fee-for-service basis -- is more expensive to provide than care provided by Family Child Care homes. The Family Child Care homes offer child care by trained individuals, usually military spouses, for up to six children in their military quarters.

The Child Development Centers are heavily subsidized and most have waiting lists, particularly for infants and very young children -- the group where adequate care is hardest to find, according to researchers. The centers give priority to single-parent service members and dual-military career service members. Because more families are choosing to live off base, the centers are not accessible to many families.

Although Family Child Care homes can provide flexible child care, they also are located on base, provide only limited cost subsidies and have no comprehensive back-up network of child care providers.

The military does not provide subsidies to service members who seek child care outside the military system. Research has found that benefits that allow flexibility generally are more highly valued than more costly benefits that limit choice, Zellman said. Service members might prefer a voucher of a lower value that can be used anywhere to a subsidized slot in a child care center on base, she said.

Although the military provides child care primarily to improve readiness, retention and recruitment, it does not collect information that would enable it to determine whether the system is achieving those goals.

The study suggests several areas the Defense Department should further investigate to better align the childcare system with its goals and service member needs:

• Examine the possibility of redistributing resources within the current system to provide military benefits to more families, and better support the types of care that would be more likely to benefit readiness.

• Determine whether child care benefits could be expanded to cover more military families and a broader set of childcare needs.

• Consider investing more resources into collecting information that would provide a more accurate picture of how the current childcare system affects Defense Department goals.

The study was sponsored by the Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation, and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant commands, the Department of the Navy, the Marine corps, the defense agencies and the defense Intelligence community.

Other authors of the study are Rebecca Shaw of RAND and Michelle Cho of Competition Policy Associates. The study, “Options for Improving the Military Child Care System,” is available at

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